Nobody From Nowhere (@i8dc)

Occasional Common Sense

Everything You Might Want to Know About The FAA Shutdown

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Started this a day or two ago, and it looks like this will be settled before Monday, but here goes.

The FAA shut down for two reasons:

  1. On April 1st the House passed a long-term FAA funding bill; the Senate passed its version of the bill a week later.  Following standard practice, the Senate requested a conference to resolve the differences in the bills and assigned conferees.  The House is yet to take the next step, which is to assign representatives to the conference committee.  Staff from both sides have been working to resolve the bills’ difference, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has been quoted as saying that all but one of the still unresolved issues could be dealt with in 20 minutes.The sticking point is a change made last year to the procedure by which groups of aviation workers choose to establish a union.  The National Mediation Board (NMB) is a three-person board created in 1934 to resolve disputes in the railroad and airline industries. The board also handles railroad and airline employee representation disputes.  Over the objections of the Bush-appointed chairwoman, the two Obama-appointed board members changed a long-standing rule governing workers’ election of a representative to negotiate on their behalf (the choice to unionize).  Under the original rule, a majority of covered employees had to vote in favor or the union; under the changed rule, only a majority of those voting.  More on this below.
  2. On July 20th the House introduced an eight-week stopgap funding measure that included a provision effectively ending subsidized service to three rural airports (there are also cuts to 10 other airports that are within 90 miles of a major airport, but Republicans say these are less contentious than the three, since cuts to the 10 are included in the Senate’s version of the reauthorization).   The Senate and the White House objected to the piggybacking of a substantive (though limited) policy change on a stopgap spending bill, especially after public comments by Chairman Mica that the cuts were added purely as a bargaining tool. The House recessed upon passing the debt ceiling bill, while the Senate was considering it, allowing no opportunity for negotiation over the FAA bill.  Senate leadership did not offer the House bill for consideration, and the Senate recessed on August 2.

The failure of Congress to pass this extension means several things:

  • The government is not collecting fees on airline tickets, which average between $30 million and $32 million per day.  Until the Congress passes legislation authorizing the FAA, this money goes to plussing up airlines’ profits, rather than paying for maintaining and improving airports.
  • The FAA has furloughed some 4,000 employees.  These include engineers, technicians, attorneys, office staff, and safety inspectors (some of whom are still working, running up their expenses on their credit cards).
  • Some 70,000 contractor workers are affected by the work stoppage.  These include construction workers around the country, as well as contractors supporting FAA headquarters in Washington (including several friends of mine).

Of the three rural airports’ subsidy cuts in the stopgap measure (one in Nevada, home of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; one in Montana, home of Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus; and one in New Mexico – collateral damage), Chairman Mica is reported to have said they were added to the stopgap because it “forces the Senate’s hand to act.”

On the House floor, he put it differently: “I’m putting everybody on notice that each time, we will pass [parts of the] reauthorization , [even] if we have to do it extension by extension.  So we’re starting with this small part of what the other body has passed, and I’m adding what I think is a reasonable provision.”  Rather than offer a status quo extension, Mica added something he wants passed as part of the FAA reauthorization, and said he would do it again and again if further stopgaps are required.  In other words, you will take what I give you and like it, again and again and again.  From the Democrats’ point of view, if they were ever going to take a stand, wasn’t this clearly the time to do it?

“There may be some people furloughed, but it’s not my fault,” said Mica, jabbing at his lectern. “It will be responsibility of the other body who does not take this up and pass it.  They will be furloughing people and putting people out of jobs.”

[Update 8/5: Dana Milbank of the Washington Post interviewed Chairman Mica, who appears stunned that he received so much fire from the public over his role in this episode – worth reading.]

Chairman Mica said the only contentious issue in the FAA authorization is the NMB rule change, and that he added what Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called “a procedural hand grenade” purely to increase pressure on Senate Democrats to accept House Republicans’ attempt to nullify the NMB rule change.

Sounds an awful lot like the debt ceiling “negotiations.”  Chairman Mica held hostage the jobs of 74,000 people, and Harry Reid wouldn’t pay the ransom.

The basic question here is the NMB decision decision to change the rule.  The record on this is extensive.  It appears to me that the two Obama appointees introduced the change without consulting the Bush-appointed board chairwoman Elizabeth Dougherty, and that her complaints about being excluded from the process may be legitimate.  However, by my reading of the record, and the legal opinion most prominent in the best arguments I saw of both supporters and detractors (the 1937 Virginian Railway case), the rule change is long overdue.  The Virginian decision clearly stated that “a vote of the majority of those eligible is necessary for a choice, an indifferent minority could prevent the resolution of a contest, and thwart the purpose of the act.”

Opponents of the rule change make one very compelling point: the rule change would make it easier for workers to select a representative (union), while leaving the old rule in place for decertifying a union.  So under the revised rule, it would take a majority of those voting to establish the union, but would take a majority of all eligible voters to disestablish the union.  This disparity is unacceptable and should be changed.  Congress could negotiate such a new rule as part of the FAA reauthorization, which would prevent the inevitable lawsuits that will follow the adoption of this rule.

That is, if Congress was a place where negotiations happened.

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Written by David Clayton

August 5, 2011 at 1:50 am

Posted in Punditry

Tagged with , , , ,

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