by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
There was a time when advocates for modernizing the nation’s aerospace system and highways would have been disappointed in a short-term funding extension that kicked major decisions down the road.
But times have changed.
The House on Tuesday passed a short-term extension of both federal highway and aviation funding — to cheers from lobbying associations that for years have backed more substantive reforms.
The difference is the budget deficit, and a cold climate for federal spending that resulted in a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration in August that furloughed thousands of workers.
After that impasse was settled, there were murmurs for a month that the federal gas tax in the highway funding bill could be the next standoff between Democrats and the ascendant Tea Party.
As a result, transportation associations were breathing a sigh of relief Tuesday after the House approved a combined bill that extends highway and aviation funding through the beginning of next year.
“In today’s climate, current levels should be considered a victory,” the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), said during a Tuesday interview on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
Rahall noted that the budget passed by the Republican-led House cut transportation spending, along with several other areas. But he said advocates for roads, bridges, highways and airports had to “take what we got right now.”
Those comments contrast sharply with earlier calls from Rahall and other Democrats about the necessity of a long-term bill.
As recently as this summer, transportation advocates derided passing a 21st short-term extension of an FAA bill that was passed in 2004 and expired in 2007.
But negotiations over a long-term bill for the FAA become bogged down in a fight over labor rights for transportation workers.
One reason advocates were smiling Tuesday is that they’ve had to live with some very short extensions. The last bill extended the FAA’s authority for just three weeks, providing little certainty to airports and workers.
Airports Council International-North America President Greg Principato noted Tuesday that the average length of previous extensions of FAA funding was 51 days.
“Four months is something to applaud,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “It provides more certainty than a month here, a couple days there. That’s no way to run the national aviation infrastructure system.
“Fours months, clean, that’s obviously something we’re very supportive of.”
Still, Principato said he would like Congress to pass a “clean” two-year extension.
“We’ve been lurching back and forth for two years now,” he said.
Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee acknowledged that the extension of aviation and highway funding through February was not the same as a long-term bill.
“While this legislation signifies a bipartisan, bicameral agreement to move forward, it must not be just a temporary Band-Aid for our important aviation, highway, rail and safety programs and for job creation,” committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a news release.
“To build our nation’s infrastructure and put people to work, we need long-term authorizations of these programs. Unfortunately, this bill is the 22nd FAA extension and the eighth surface transportation extension. Congress has delayed passing a long-term FAA bill for over four years, and a surface transportation bill for two years. This action represents a last chance to roll up our sleeves and get transportation projects in America moving again.”
FAA Managers Association President David Conley said that after last month’s shutdown, which saw 4,000 workers furloughed and the government miss out on $30 million per day in airline sales taxes, lawmakers were likely in no mood for a replay.
“The furloughs were bad for everybody involved,” he said.
Conley’s group has been pushing Congress to include back pay for the furloughed FAA workers for the 13 days they missed. The language had been included in an earlier standalone FAA extension, but it was dropped when the funding was combined with the extension of the highway funding bill, which authorizes Congress to collect the $100 million-per-day federal gas tax.
Conley said the back pay for FAA workers might have been a casualty of the desire in Congress to avoid another big fight over the agency’s funding.
“I think there may have been some energy toward a cleaner bill that has a better chance of passing,” he said.
There were signs Tuesday that the new bill might not sail through the Senate.
A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), whose objections to rural airport subsidies played a large role in the August impasse, said Coburn would try to block the House measure.
Coburn spokesman John Hart said in an interview with Bloomberg that Coburn would use “all procedural tools at his disposal” to block the bill because he objected to programs designed to increase bike lanes and green space around roads.
“We’re not going to continue to spend money on that,” Coburn said.
The current bill funding the FAA expires Friday, while the current version of the highway bill was scheduled to run through Sept. 30.