Tower Heist
The cry is going up from rural Republicans: Hands off my airport!

McCollum Airport in Cobb County, Ga., one of the small airports facing closure.


Andrew Stiles

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.