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

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.