With the debt-ceiling debate having sucked up all the political oxygen in Washington over the past several weeks, the ongoing fight over a funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration has taken a back seat. But now that Congress has “solved” the debt crisis and adjourned for the month of August, the FAA showdown is allowing lawmakers to continue their griping with one another (and giving reporters something to write about).
Because Congress hasn’t been able to agree on a long-term funding regime for the FAA, the agency has spent the last several years operating under a series of temporary funding measures. On July 20, the House passed with bipartisan support a temporary measure that would have extended FAA financing through September 16. As you might expect, this was not simply a “clean” funding extension, as most Democrats have been calling for. It included about $14 million in cuts to commercial airline service to rural airports. Republicans also put forward a long-term funding bill containing language that would undo a recently instituted federal labor regulation making it easier airline company employees to unionize. Democrats are unhappy with both provisions.
But because the Senate failed to act by July 23, when the most recent FAA funding extension expired, the agency has been in a partial shutdown ever since. More than 4,000 workers have been furloughed and thousands of construction projects put on hold. Dozens of airport inspectors have been asked to work without pay. Millions of dollars in uncollected airline revenue has already been lost.
The Senate had ample opportunity to prevent this from happening, or at the very least to end the FAA shutdown by simply passing the House bill before adjourning on August 2. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) even urged his colleagues to do just that, saying “sometimes you have to step back and find out what’s best for the country and not be bound by some of your own personal issues.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood concurred, imploring the Senate to act. But when Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) offered a unanimous consent request on Tuesday to proceed to consideration of the House bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) objected, effectively blocking the measure, after which Reid decided to throw in the towel and adjourn for the August recess, thus allowing the shutdown to continue.
Apparently, Reid had a change of heart on Wednesday, joining Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and others at press conference at the Capitol to accuse Republicans of “hostage-taking” behavior for refusing to accept a clean FAA funding extension. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a good idea for the Senate to simply pass the House bill, rather it was up to the House to accept whatever the Senate sent them, even after both bodies had adjourned.
“Under the cover of the debt ceiling crisis, [Republicans] are holding these aviation workers hostage until they get everything they want,” Schumer told reporters. “They have taken brinksmanship again one step too far.” Democrats are now calling on Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) to call the House back into session and pass a clean extension by unanimous consent. President Obama did the same at a press briefing later in the day. “This is a lose, lose, lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back into town and do their job,” the president said.
Boehner, meanwhile, was not amused. “All it will take to end this crisis is for the Senate to pass the House-approved FAA extension,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic Leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill.”
“If the Senate had significant objections, they should have acted on them, but they again did nothing,” added House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.). “With millions of Americans out of work, it is more than irresponsible for Leader Reid and Senate Democrats to continue to put partisanship over jobs.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Democrats took their cue from the violent anti–Tea Party rhetoric that surrounded the debt-ceiling debate. “It’s as if someone is holding a gun to your head and saying give me your money,” Schumer said. “You can hurt innocent people by not getting your own way.”
Republicans blame the Senate’s failure to take up the House-passed bill on the Democrats’ subservience to airline unions, who currently have their eyes set on Delta, the only major airline that has yet to be unionized. Delta employees have repeatedly voted against unionization. However, the National Mediation Board recently introduced a new rule stating that employee referendums on whether to unionize can be approved by a simple majority of those voting in the referendum, as opposed to the old rule requiring that a majority of all affected employees vote in favor of unionization (i.e., a non-vote counts as a vote against). House Republicans simply overturned the rule in their long-term FAA funding legislation, which has turned out to the be the real sticking point in the debate.
The GOP sees one lawmaker in particular, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), as the primary culprit. Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the FAA, is a loyal union ally. “The FAA partial shutdown is the work of one man — Jay Rockefeller,” writes a GOP source. “He’s putting 4,000 FAA workers and 70,000–80,000 construction workers out of work and costing the government $25 million a day in lost revenues in order to protect $16 million in rural airport subsidies . . . as well as protecting his union allies.”
Naturally, Rockefeller accuses Republicans of union-busting, and “clinging” to “the whole anti-worker thing that started in Wisconsin.”
And the shutdown showdown continues.