Political paralysis in Washington grounds work at state airport

WASHINGTON–After essentially deferring hard decisions on budget cuts, Congress went on vacation this week without resolving an impasse over reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration–a move that is costing the government millions in lost taxes, keeping thousands of workers off their jobs, and leaving a small Connecticut airport waiting for a safety upgrade and runway improvements.

Update: Impasse may be near end.

Air traffic controllers, mechanics, and other essential workers are keeping airports operational, but the FAA has furloughed 4,000 other employees. The agency also has lost its tax-collecting authority, costing the government more than $28 million a day–$1 billion or more if the impasse continues until Congress gets back to work Sept. 6.

And the FAA has issued more than 250 “stop-work” orders on about $10 billion in airport upgrades–including upgrades to Danbury Municipal Airport. That leaves the contractor hired to to the work in a quandary.

“We’re scrambling hard,” said Frank Swanson, president of the CMGC Building Corp., a Bedford, N.H.-based firm that was about to start upgrading Danbury airport’s control tower when he got his stop-work notice from the FAA. “I had 5 projects with the FAA. All of them are stopped.”

Swanson was set to ramp up the Danbury project next week, reinforcing the airport’s control tower to better withstand earthquakes. “When it was built, it didn’t meet the seismic requirements for earthquakes in that zone, so we’re increasing the steel inside the air control tower,” Swanson explained.

In addition to the air tower upgrade, Danbury officials were in the process of finalizing a grant to fix the pavement on two different taxiways. “We were shovel-ready, bids went out, and because of the FAA shut-down, we’re no longer able to proceed,” said Michael Safranek, the airport’s assistant manager.

Swanson said the legislative stalemate in Washington has affected more than two dozen of his own employees and workers at firms he subcontracts with.

“I’m a little angry over the way our government is handling this,” Swanson said. “It’s unfortunate that nobody felt it important to do something about this before they went on vacation. They stranded a lot of hard-working people–constituents that put them in office.”

Swanson’s not the only one who is steamed.

“This is the most unfortunate situation I’ve seen for a long time in Washington,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told C-Span’s Washington Journal on Wednesday. LaHood said that along with the 4,000 FAA employees who aren’t getting paychecks, more than 70,000 construction workers have been idled by the impasse.

The issue had, until now, been overshadowed by the debt-ceiling debacle, as lawmakers rushed to meet an Aug. 2 deadline to lift the nation’s borrowing cap before a possible default. At the last minute, the House and Senate passed a measure that called for deep budget cuts, but left the details to a yet-to-be-named committee. Members quickly took off for a month-long recess, leaving the FAA in limbo.

There are several major sticking points, but how tough they are to resolve depends on who you ask.

Republicans say the main stumbling block is a program called “Essential Air Service,” which subsidizes flights to rural airports. Both parties want to scale that program back, saying it’s too costly to taxpayers. But they differ over the terms.

And Republicans, in their version of the FAA reauthorization bill, completely nixed federal subsidies to rural airports in four states served by powerful Senate Democrats, including one in Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Instead of passing this simple bill, Senate Democrats chose to protect outrageous ticket subsidies, as much as $3,720 per ticket in Ely, Nevada, on the backs of 4,000 furloughed FAA employees and thousands more out-of-work airport construction workers,” House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said in a statement Wednesday. “Senate Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for this partial shutdown of FAA programs and airport projects.”

Reid said he could accept losing the subsidies to the Ely airport, even as he defended the Essential Air Service program as a lifeline for rural America. He said the stalemate has nothing to do with EAS, and “everything to do with a labor dispute” and “the anti-worker agenda of one airline, Delta.”

Reid was referring to an intense, behind-the-scenes battle being waged over a new rule issued last year by the National Mediation Board, which handles airline and railroad labor cases. The NMB said that airline workers could form a new union if a majority of those voting favored that step; the old rule said that a majority of workers eligible to vote had to support forming a union.

That small but significant distinction has infuriated House Republicans. So in their FAA reauthorization bill, they included language repealing that NMB rule. Delta Airlines, which has successfully defeated several unionizing initiatives, has been pushing for that provision.

“A union contract with a private company, it doesn’t belong in a bill. It can’t be in a bill,” said an exasperated Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee is a key player in the FAA reauthorization fight.

“It’s very easy to solve this. It’s embarrassingly easy, shamefully easy,” Rockefeller said at a news conference Wednesday with Reid and other Democrats. “All we have to do is pass a clean bill of extension.”

Congress has done that 20 times in the past, failing repeatedly since 2007 to enact a long-term reauthorization of the FAA legislation. Rockefeller was at a loss to explain why Democrats were unable to do so in the last Congress, when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.

“I don’t know why we didn’t do it,” he said. “But we’re dealing now with the present.”

In the present, lawmakers can’t agree on a short-term temporary fix, let alone a long-term FAA extension.

Swanson, for his part, doesn’t understand what the sticking points are and doesn’t care to.

“I haven’t followed it a lot, only because I’m now working crazy hours to bid in the private market to try to put my people back to work,” he said. “So I can’t say I know all of the circumstances. I’m sure there’s more to the story than I know. However, it doesn’t change the fact that these people went on vacation. You had a problem, you walked away from it, and left a bunch of people hanging.”