LaHood scrambles to avert partial FAA shutdown, furloughs for 4,000 workers

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working furiously to convince lawmakers to pass a funding measure for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before the agency is forced to partially shut down at midnight on Friday.

Only about 4,000 FAA workers whose positions are funded by the Aviation Trust Fund would be unable to report to work Saturday if a deal is not reached by midnight, but LaHood said that was 4,000 too many.

“Every job is important; I don’t want to see any of our workers, and construction workers, have to leave their job site,” he said on a conference call Thursday.

LaHood stressed that aviation safety would not be compromised by a shutdown, but said the toll on FAA workers would be severe.

“Like the rest of us, they depend on their jobs to pay their mortgages, buy food and make car payments,” he continued. “That’s not how we should run the national aviation system.”

Lawmakers already were at odds over a long-term funding bill for the FAA, but this week, they could not even agree on a temporary measure. The last long-term funding bill for the FAA was approved in 2004 and expired in 2007, so the agency has been living on a series of stopgap measures, the last of which expires Friday.

The long-term FAA bill has been held up by provisions inserted by the House that would make it harder for aviation and railroad workers to unionize. The language was not included in the Senate-approved version of the bill, and President Obama has threatened to veto a final version of the measure if it is included.

The House passed what would have been a 21st short-term extension earlier this week, but it included changes to the Essential Air Service (EAS) program that provides grants to airlines for flying to rural airports. Those changes had not been included in previous short-term bills.

The White House and congressional Democrats said the changes should be removed and dealt with in negotiations over the long-term bill, but Republicans in the House proceeded with the vote they scheduled Wednesday, approving the bill on a 243-177 vote.

Absent a companion measure being approved by the Senate, where Democrats have thus far balked at the EAS changes, taxes will not be allowed to be appropriated to the trust fund that pays for many FAA employees.

The DOT said that would mean that employees in airport safety and engineering standards, airport safety planning and those who work in the Airport Improvement Program, which manages grants for construction projects at airports, would be placed immediately on furlough starting Saturday. Also included would be workers in research and development, including employees who are toiling away on the FAA’s proposed NextGen air-traffic management system.

Even as he urged lawmakers to avert a shutdown, LaHood has sought to reassure airline passengers that their safety would not be adversely affected by the fractious negotiations in Washington. Air-traffic controllers would be largely unaffected by any furloughs, since they are not typically paid out of the Aviation Trust Fund.

“I want to reassure the flying public that, during this period, safety will not be compromised,” LaHood said immediately after the House’s vote Wednesday.

The union for FAA safety workers took a slightly different tack, warning that critical passenger-safety programs could be put in jeopardy by even a partial shutdown.

“We urge lawmakers to take swift action to ensure that FAA safety programs will continue to operate and that the flying public will not be impacted,” Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

“Holding FAA safety programs hostage by insisting that controversial provisions be addressed at the eleventh hour is not fair to the employees who face furloughs at midnight on Friday, and it is certainly not fair to the American flying public,” he continued.

Democrats and Republicans on Thursday traded blame for the FAA reaching the brink of a shutdown, making little mention of the possibility of a deal.

“This extension adopts unanimously passed Senate language and stops three airports from receiving passenger ticket subsidies in excess of $1,000,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday. “Every ticket at the Ely, Nev., airport is underwritten $3,720 by federal taxpayers.

“It is now up to the Senate to pass this bill and not shut down FAA programs over a little provision that eliminates huge government subsidies to just three small airports,” Mica continued.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) blamed Mica for the impasse.

“I strongly urge you to reconsider your position and send over a clean FAA extension and appoint conferees for the FAA reauthorization bill, as the Senate did on April 7, 2011, to move this important legislation forward,” Rockefeller wrote in a letter to Mica this week.

“Further efforts to add policy components to FAA extensions that have not been negotiated with the Senate will likely shut the FAA down. You need to think about this very, very carefully.

“Any consequences resulting from such an action will fall squarely on your shoulders,” he continued. “Right now you are in control of the agency’s immediate future.”

For his part, rather than assigning blame to either political party, LaHood stressed Thursday that the consequences of an FAA shutdown could be avoided if Congress worked out a deal.

“Their pay will not be affected,” he said of the workers would be furloughed if a deal is reached by midnight Friday.

“They’ll show up on Saturday and do their jobs,” he said.


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