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WHAT OTHERS SAY: In FAA showdown, good government is held hostage

Saturday, August 6, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

"The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government."

Thus spoke President Barack Obama on July 25 in a televised address on the debt-ceiling negotiations. On Tuesday, Congress finally passed the debt ceiling/spending reduction bill and left town, many of them by way of Reagan National or Dulles International airports — both of which, by the way, offer free parking to members of Congress.

The irony — one might even say hypocrisy — of this cannot be overstated. Since June 23, when the Federal Aviation Administration's spending authorization expired, the FAA has put 4,000 workers on furlough. The agency has halted $11 billion in airport construction around the country, putting 70,000 other people out of work.

On Thursday, House and Senate leaders reached a deal on a temporary fix that would put the FAA back in business until Sept. 16. In a technical session that thankfully won't require most senators to interrupt their vacations, the Democratically controlled Senate will bow — again — to House Republicans.

The deal will allow the FAA to resume collecting the 7.5 percent federal excise tax on passenger tickets, along with other fees. These fees usually make up between $25 and $50 of the cost of a ticket and more for international flights.

During the 12-day shutdown, some airlines issued refunds to passengers, but most told passengers that they'd have to take it up with the Internal Revenue Service.

In all, ticket revenue lost during the delay — which pays for airport construction and some other FAA operations — comes to nearly $400 million. Add to that the lost wages of FAA construction workers, and you've got a billion-dollar hit to the economy made possible by bipartisan Congressional intransigence and ineptitude.

The FAA's last full-fledged funding bill expired in 2007. Since then, Congress has passed a series of 20 temporary extensions to the expired bill.

For the first couple of years, the problem was parochial issues. Some members of Congress from western states wanted the FAA to open more landing slots for larger, long-haul aircraft at Reagan National Airport, just across the Potomac River from Washington. This would enable them to avoid the 25-mile drive to town from Dulles, in the Virginia suburbs.

This idea was opposed by members from Virginia and Maryland, whose constituents don't like airplanes flying over their homes night and day.

Still another parochial issue divided the House and Senate. The Senate's FAA authorization bill, passed in February, continued most of the $163 million a year in Essential Air Services subsidies to small-town airports. In July, the House voted to trim those subsidies, eliminating 13 communities entirely, including one each in Nevada and Montana, the home states of Senate Democrats Harry Reid and Max Baucus.

These minor issues could have been sorted out, as they had many times before. But, in 2009, after Obama's election, the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor-management issues in the railroad and airline industries, gained a Democratic majority.

The board quickly moved to make it easier for airline employees to unionize. Previously, employees who didn't participate in union-certification elections at their workplaces were counted as having voted against the union. The new board rule said that if you wanted to vote against a union, you actually had to show up and vote.

This doesn't seem like such a terrible imposition, and indeed, it's the way it works in most other industries. But anti-union forces, both within the airline industry — particularly at Delta — and outside of it, accused the board and Democrats of being in the pockets of "Big Labor."

"Big Labor" actually is an oxymoron. These days, only 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized. But myths die hard, especially for Republicans.

Rather than seek compromise, Republicans in the House insisted on going back to the old rules, where you don't even have to get off the couch and cast a ballot to have your vote counted.

Reid and other Senate Democrats apparently are willing to accept the House version, at least temporarily. Having seen during the debt negotiations that House Republicans were willing to blow up the nation's economy rather than compromise, Senate Democrats could have no doubt that they'd blow up the FAA.

This is a very frightening way to make public policy.


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