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Debunking the FAA Shutdown



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So it looks like the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration will come to an end later today when the Senate approves a House-passed temporary funding extension through September 16. Obviously, we haven’t seen the last of this conflict, as it is sure to resume once Congress returns from its month-long recess. So it’s worth debunking a few of the myths that have arisen over the past couple of weeks, and are likely to reappear soon enough:

Myth #1: House Republicans are to blame for the shutdown.

False. In the days before both chambers voted to adjourn after passing the debt ceiling bill, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) sought to negotiate a solution with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), and even indicated that he would be willing to go along with a “clean” short-term extension that would not include the elimination of $16 million in rural airport subsidies (money the federal government pays to subsidies the ticket fares of passengers flying out of remote areas across the country — more on that later).

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R., Ohio), the vice chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on transportation who was involved in these negotiations, told reporters Wednesday that the talks broke down because Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) refused to drop their unanimous consent objections (to a “clean” extension and the House-passed version, respectively). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) also objected to a motion to proceed on the House bill. LaTourette said he sympathized with Coburn’s position — this was the first such FAA funding bill in years that included a spending cut — but noted that if the Senate passed the House bill, which they will do later today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could (and will) simply issue waivers to restore the subsidies. Which brings us to…

Myth #2: House Republicans caused the shutdown by insisting on the elimination of rural airport subsidies.

False. The language included in the House bill is taken directly from an amendment to the Senate version of a long-term FAA funding bill. The amendment, which Coburn introduced, passed the Senate by voice vote and was added to the final version of the bill, which was subsequently approved by an overwhelming 87 to 8 margin. It just so happens that one of the airports to receive the federal subsidy in question is located in Reid’s home state of Nevada, in the small town of Ely (population 4,255). The federal government subsidizes flights out of Ely at a cost of more than $3,000 per passenger, an absurdity that Reid himself acknowledged, which is why he urged his colleagues before adjournment to simply pass the House bill and end the shutdown, 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.” Boehner was willing to do just that, by agreeing to drop the language and in favor of a “clean” bill, but the Senate objected.

That said, the subsidies issue is not the crux of the disagreement between the two parties over long-term funding for the FAA. Both chambers have passed long-term funding measures, but because the two sides have repeatedly failed to come to terms, the FAA has spent the last several years operating under a series of temporary funding measures. Senate Democrats are up in arms over a provision in the House’s long-term bill that overturns a new rule that makes it easier for airline employees to unionize. At the center of this fight is Delta, the only major airline without a unionized workforce. Delta employees have repeatedly voted against unionization, but the National Mediation Board recently introduced a new rule stating that employee referendums on unionization 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 undid the rule in their long-term FAA funding legislation. Rockefeller has accused the GOP of “clinging” to an “anti-worker” agenda.

Myth #3: The partial shutdown resulted in more than 70,000 construction workers being laid off.

Laughably false. Mike M. Ahlers of CNN thoroughly debunks this one. As it turns out, that oft-cited figure is based on a 3-year-old study by George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller, who says the 70,000 is calculated by including “everything from the from actual construction workers, who were laid off, to drug store clerks and restaurant waitresses, who might see ‘a tiny bit less revenue flow.’” The true number of laid-off construction workers, Fuller told CNN, is probably one-third of that figure.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) examined Fuller’s study and concluded that during an FAA shutdown “as many as 35,000 jobs will be undermined in the broader economy, from the lunch wagon near the job site to the truck dealership across town.”

Even more laughable are the multiple instances in which politicians have abused the data, which Ahler cites:

“More than 70,000 construction jobs around the country… are on hold,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said in a written statement.

Some apparently added the nearly 4,000 FAA employees who have been furloughed to the total.

The dispute is “keeping 74,000 people from working,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

Some apparently rounded up.

“Seventy-five thousand people are now over the precipice,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said at a Wednesday news conference.

“We have 80,000 jobs at least on the line,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid at one briefing Tuesday.

(President Obama, in comments Wednesday, fudged, referring to “tens of thousands of construction workers being suspended…”)

On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO Executive Council got into the action. In a news release, it said House Republicans “jeopardized 90,000 airport construction jobs.” Two sentences later, it went for the brass ring: “Congress must (act) to preserve almost 100,000 American jobs,” it said.

More here.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails regarding the “real reasons” for the FAA dispute:

I’m a management side labor lawyer. The National Mediation Board election rule change is relatively small beer compared to the activist agenda of the National Labor Relations Board (although the NMB rule has huge impact within its limited sphere). The NLRB currently has several rule and procedure changes pending which, if implemented, would be a very strong consolation prize to Labor in lieu of the now-impossible-to-pass Employee Free Choice Act. If promulgated, these changes would unquestionably harm both employers and employees. To us labor law lifers, they are breathtaking in their audacity. 

House Republicans, in my opinion, are sending a message to the NLRB with FAA funding.  

For the sake of jobs and the economy, I hope the Obama Board majority gets the message. I suspect they won’t. The Board, which has always somewhat tilted leftward (it’s the nature of the statute), is presently controlled by true ideologues who see these rule changes as their legacy.

UPDATE II: Additional insight from another reader, who writes:

If Senate Republicans just do nothing, the NRLB will lose its quorum and be unable to act beginning 1/1/12. Wilma Liebman’s term expires in a few weeks, and Craig Beckers recess appointment expires at end of the year.  There was a Supreme Court ruling a few years ago that the NRLB could not act with only 2 members. And if Senate and House Republicans continue to work together forcing pro-forma sessions during recesses, the NRLB could be effectively defanged by the end of the year.



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