FAA Furloughs to End, but Who Is to Blame for All the Flight Delays?

Billy House

The House gave final approval Friday to a bill designed to end the furloughs of air-traffic controllers, but not before a partisan floor fight over who is to blame for the thousands of flight delays this week. And some lawmakers urged action to mitigate other adverse effects of the budget sequester cuts to social and military programs. 

“This is a Band-Aid, and sequestration needs a triple-bypass surgery,” said Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee, before the 361-41 vote approving the measure.

But Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, accused the Obama administration of “playing games that threaten passengers’ rights and safety,” and said Congress, by this bill, "is stepping in the correct the problems.”

The measure already passed in the Senate on Thursday night to allow the shifting of up to $253 million in Federal Aviation Administration accounts to airport-tower funds to prevent reduced staffing. The money would come from another program used for airport improvements. Lawmakers said the available funds should also be enough to prevent the closures of 149 smaller contract airport towers across the nation.

A White House spokesman has said President Obama will sign the measure.

The remarks by Larsen that the vote Friday was a “Band-Aid” were reflective of a Democratic refrain that broader action is needed to deal with sequester cuts beyond the $600 million reduction to the FAA, and that House Republicans should finally agree to go to a conference with the Senate to work out a budget plan for fiscal 2014.

The $85 billion in across-the-board sequester cuts at agencies began kicking in last month.

In fact, the House and Senate have passed their own budget bills. But Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have been demanding that a “pre-conference framework” be worked out before naming conferees to work out a final budget plan with Democrats in the Senate and the House.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., was among those who voted against the FAA measure, arguing on the floor that lawmakers should not be mitigating the impact of sequester cuts on just one segment of government services.

He threw out other effects, such as 70,000 children being kicked off Head Start programs; 4 million fewer Meals-on-Wheels programs; fewer safety inspections and furloughs of FBI and other Homeland Security officers; and slower processing of disability claims.

“It fails to address the whole impact of sequester,” said Hoyer of the bill. And Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., later took to the floor to ask, “Why don’t we just get rid of the problem and go to conference?”

But Republicans on Friday were accusing the Obama administration and Democrats of political posturing in the air-traffic controller furloughs, and even accused the FAA of handling its $600 million sequester cut poorly.

"I think we all agree the FAA and the administration has handled the sequester poorly," Latham said. "The FAA has negotiated in bad faith with the FAA employees, the airlines, the flying public, and the Congress, and the administration has played shameful politics with sequestration at the cost of hardworking American families.”

Boehner, in a statement after the vote, said: “The disruption to America’s air-traffic system over the past week was a consequence of the administration’s choice to implement the president’s sequestration cuts in the most painful manner possible.” 

“It’s unacceptable that the FAA chose not to plan for sequestration or utilize the flexibility it already has. Americans were rightly fed up, and it’s unfortunate that the House and Senate were forced to step in and fix the problem when the president chose not to act,” he said.

But even some Republicans on Friday were upset that Congress has not yet dealt with other cuts in government spending.

“I support the action by Congress this week to provide the Federal Aviation Administration with the flexibility it needs to keep air-traffic controllers on the job and flights on schedule,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“However, it is shameful for us to make allowances for the FAA while doing nothing to stop the draconian cuts that are decimating our military today and putting our nation's security in danger. Dealing with the impacts of sequestration on a case-by-case basis does nothing to fix the underlying issue and prolongs this damaging policy," said McCain.