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Editorial

Congress left the FAA up in the air

If only the nation had sober grown-ups who genuinely believed in public service to resolve FAA funding issues.

August 04, 2011

If nothing else, the extended debate over raising the federal debt ceiling, which brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe, demonstrated that this Congress was unusually willing to risk doing extreme harm to the nation in order to score political points. Ultimately, lawmakers stepped back from the edge on that issue — but when it came to funding the Federal Aviation Administration, they jumped off a cliff.

Because Congress failed to approve a temporary spending measure for the FAA before leaving town for the rest of August, 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed, airport construction projects have been halted, 70,000 construction workers have been idled, and the federal government stands to lose roughly $1 billion in uncollected airline ticket taxes. This isn't just an inconvenience for a federal agency; it's economic carnage. At a time when about 18% of construction workers are out of a job, those 70,000 positions really count. The tax-revenue loss will cause lasting damage to the FAA, and delaying major construction projects is a sure way to add to their ultimate cost.

Approval of temporary spending measures for the FAA has been routine since 2007, when Congress deadlocked over a long-term spending plan. So after 20 such extensions, why couldn't Republicans and Democrats agree on the 21st? The apparent source of contention is picayune: $16.5 million worth of federal subsidies for small airports that airlines wouldn't serve without government aid, which Republicans want to cut from the FAA budget. Regardless of what one thinks about this form of rural welfare, a $16.5-million program hardly seems worth the fuss considering that the inability to collect ticket taxes is costing the government nearly twice as much on a daily basis.

But underlying this dispute is a thornier issue. Last year, the National Mediation Board changed the rules for union elections by airline and railroad workers; since 1934, a majority vote of all employees was required to form a union, but now only a majority vote of those casting a ballot is needed. The GOP is fighting to reverse this ruling, and Democrats are digging in just as fiercely to protect it. Neither party's argument is entirely convincing. The airline industry is already struggling mightily, and now might not be the best time to change labor rules that could boost costs. Yet unions are approved by a majority of those voting in other industries, and there's little reason to give airlines special privileges.

Conservative Republicans, who have shown extraordinary unwillingness to compromise, have taken most of the blame for the dysfunction of this Congress, but Democrats hardly covered themselves with glory in the FAA dispute — sober grown-ups who genuinely believed in public service could have resolved this issue weeks ago. If only Americans would elect a few.

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