Tower Heist

by Andrew Stiles
The cry is going up from rural Republicans: Hands off my airport!

Some of sequestrations automatic spending cuts to federal programs have collided with an unlikely opponent: red-state GOP congressmen, who are fighting to avert spending cuts to facilities in their districts and states. The lawmakers are not pleased with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which recently issued a declaration that it intends to close nearly 150 air-traffic-control towers.

Though Democrats are also protesting the closures, Republicans are especially nervous. According to federal records, roughly 60 percent of the 149 air-traffic-control towers the FAA has scheduled for closing are located in districts held by Republicans, who tend to represent more rural districts that are home to smaller airports.

The looming cuts have turned several frequent champions of spending cuts into protectors of federal funding for local air-traffic-control towers. GOP senators Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Jim Inhofe (Okla.) recently spearheaded a bipartisan effort to reverse the tower closings via an amendment to the recently approved continuing resolution, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid refused to allow a vote.

The entire Kansas congressional delegation and other Republican House members have also spoken out against the FAA’s decision to shut down air-traffic-control towers, arguing that the move is unnecessary, or that it’s a deliberate effort by the administration to maximize the pain of sequestration.

Representative Vicky Hartzler (R., Mo.), whose district is home to the Columbia Regional Airport, wants the administration to be fiscally responsible — by avoiding cuts to facilities in her backyard. A tower at her local airport is set to lose FAA funding starting May 5. “There is plenty of waste that can be trimmed by administrators implementing the budget sequester and there is absolutely no need to put Columbia workers on unemployment because of the Obama Administration’s poor choices on where to cut,” she said in a statement.

Representative Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), the founder of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, is another conservative who is fighting sequestration’s tower heist. She said she was “deeply disappointed” with the FAA’s decision to close two towers in her district, asserting that it “shows a troubling lack of priorities.”

In fact, all across the Midwest, there is Republican panic. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) has called on the FAA to “re-evaluate” its decision to remove funding for a tower at the Waukesha County Airport in his district, one of eight towers scheduled for closing in the state, including two in the district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). “The White House must put an end to this political charade,” Sensenbrenner said.

But the push to stop the closures isn’t exactly gaining stream. The Obama administration pared down the initial list of towers it intends to close from 189 to 149 but maintains that there is no way to avoid the remaining closings. Senator John Thune (R., S.D.) and Representative Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) — the top Republican on the Senate and House Transportation Committee, respectively — have been seeking information from the administration for weeks on its rationale for closing the towers, but the White House has repeatedly ignored their requests.

At the local level, some lawmakers are circumventing Congress and the FAA to make sure that the towers stay open. Republicans (and Democrats) from Texas, where 13 towers had been identified for closing, were spared anxiety over the FAA’s decision last week when the state’s transportation authority offered to pick up the tab for keeping those towers open.

Of course, plenty of Democrats are also upset at tower closings in their home districts and are finding better luck than Republicans, perhaps, at saving them from the axe. At least three towers initially scheduled to lose funding due to the sequester were built only recently using federal funding from the stimulus package in 2009, and these are located in districts held by Democrats. Representative Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.) recently touted her successful effort to “save” one of those airports — located in her Miami-area district — by securing an exemption from the FAA.

Not surprisingly, liberals are accusing Republicans of hypocrisy for championing federal spending cuts in the abstract while seeking to spare local interests from the cuts. Some have deemed this “sequestration anxiety” and speculated that widespread complications at the nation’s airports could ultimately “change the sequester narrative” in Democrats’ favor.

Republicans contest the notion, arguing that their opposition is less about protecting federal funding for local interests, and more about what they view as the administration’s hasty and ill-advised decision-making. They cite a 2012 report by the inspector general of the Department of Transportation praising the efficiency of the FAA’s contract tower program, which oversees many of the privately run towers currently on the agency’s chopping block.

Regardless, according to several congressional sources, many members are getting heat while they visit their home districts during this recess. So expect the pushback to continue. Republicans contend that there should be ample opportunities for savings elsewhere in the FAA’s budget, which has increased more than 50 percent since 2000, while domestic air traffic has declined 27 percent over the same period. In fact, all of the air-traffic-control towers identified for closing were operational in 2009, when the FAA’s budget was smaller than it will be under sequestration.

The FAA must cut $637 million, or roughly 5 percent, from its budget for the remainder of the year, and it has insisted that the only possible way to meet that target is to close the designated towers. However, Thune and Shuster identified nearly $3 billion in annual non-personnel costs that should have been examined for cuts before the FAA resorted to closing towers and requiring furloughs, including $500 million in consultant fees, $179 million in travel expenses for employees, and $143 million in operating costs for the FAA’s own fleet of 46 aircraft.

The GOP also touts the general agreement among members of the airline industry that the FAA has enough room in its budget, and sufficient authority to move funds around, to avoid the disruption that could result from closing air-traffic-control towers and furloughing employees. Major airlines, as well as the industry’s leading trade organization, Airlines for America, have drafted legal memos to this effect. Three airports scheduled to have their towers closed beginning April 7 — in Ormond Beach, Fla., Bloomington, Ill., and Spokane, Wash. — are suing the FAA and have accused the agency of not properly assessing the safety implications of closing the towers.

Even as some Republicans sweat the FAA’s approach to implementing the sequester, the Obama administration’s predictions of chaos for air travelers appear, at this point, to have been all bluster. Nevertheless, House Republicans plan to hold hearings into the matter when lawmakers return from the Easter recess.

“They’re going to have to justify every inconvenience that they’re causing,” a House-leadership aide says. “The madness of the sequester is that in most cases, spending has gone up in recent years, but now they have to start shutting things down? This is what’s so messed up about Washington.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.