(With Todd Zwillich in Washington, DC) UPDATED WITH COMMENTS FROM SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER As federal talks on a debt ceiling and deficit reductions remain stalemated, at least one federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, is already a casualty of a House-Senate impasse. The FAA partially shut down Friday, furloughing employees and bringing construction projects to a halt, after the House inserted a provision to strip out subsidies for rural airports into a routine funding extension bill.
No safety services have been affected.
The FAA is also no longer collecting taxes, but airline travelers aren't getting any relief: see related story here.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) told reporters Monday he has “no idea” when the FAA will re-open.
For his part, Senator Jay Rockefeller, (D-WV) Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a statement saying he "was appalled that the House went through on its dangerous threats last week to hold the entire FAA bill hostage to their politics. This issue is too serious for a stalemate because the House leadership is insisting on a provision pushed primarily by Delta Airlines to benefit their anti-worker agenda. That provision has already been rejected by the Senate, and the President says he'll veto it, so it is a non-starter."
The House and Senate have been discussing re-authorization for the FAA for several years. This partial shutdown is the result of a prolonged stalemate in those negotiations. In the long-term bill, Republicans are advocating for a provision--the one Rockefeller referred to as "pushed" by Delta--that overturns a rule approved last year that would make it easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize.
On Wednesday the House passed its 21st extension of the 2007 FAA re-authorization, but added in a provision that would shut down three rural airports, including one in Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Mica is pointing figures at the Senate: “This is sort of sad,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill today, including Transportation Nation’s Todd Zwillich. You know on the eve of the country’s finances near collapse, it's sort of -- I don’t know, symbolic of the whole problem here. No one is willing to eliminate any wasteful programs.” Mica says his bill only affects three airports that, he says, receive federal subsidies of $1,500 to $3,700 per ticket.
But Senator Jay Rockefeller, IV, D-WVA, Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, told Transportation Nation's Todd Zwillich that closing down the three rural airports is a red herring.
"That's the appearance that they put forward, in their letter to me they didn't ever mention the national mediation board," Rockefeller said.
"But believe me that's it. He has told me, Mica's told me on a number of occasions that he doesn't have a dog that hunts on the Essential Air Services" -- which shuts down three rural airports that receive heavy government subsidies. " That's not what their point is, their point is that they want to reverse 75 years of labor law."
Rockefeller said House Republicans were following the direction of Delta Airlines on this.
When asked if reporters should "conclude they're jamming you guys on a FAA shutdown to get you to relent on what Delta wants," Rockefeller responded in the affirmative. "They just went to the Essential Air Service as a way of covering up their real point which is anti-worker. Which I'm not going to do."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says the Senate will not consider the House version of the bill, period.
The shutdown has made U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood apoplectic with rage, insofar as the amiable former congressman can ever be full of rage: “Construction workers across America will lose their jobs and local communities will be hurt the longer this goes on. Congress needs to pass an FAA bill to prevent further economic damage,” said LaHood in a statement. “This is no way to run the best aviation system in the world.”
But a source familiar with Congress says Mica's action "breaks faith" with the negotiation process. The source says it is "unheard of" to use a funding extension to enact a policy shift rather than continuing the status quo while negotiations on a full re-authorization bill proceed.
The House committee chairman claims the Senate's bill would have shut down the three airports, too. And he added, ominously: “If I have to do additional extensions they will not like what will be in them.”
Listen to Mica's exchange with reporters here:
Mica: You know -- we’ve had this extension over there since last Wednesday. I’m sad that the Senate would leave -- allow more than 4,000 employees to be left behind. The only difference in the extension -- it is a clean extension, the only thing we added was language that they passed related to [the] Essential Air Service [program] and we had a small addition prohibiting subsidies for any Essential Air Service that was subsidized more than $1,000 a ticket, which only affects three airports in the country, one in Nevada, Montana and New Mexico. Right now it’s in the senate and I just have no idea when we’ll open FAA again.
Zwillich: Are you in discussions, are you having discussions with Chairman [Jay] Rockefeller?
Mica: I have not today, I’m willing -- I’ve had great discussions with Rockefeller we are just about through with every one of the items for re-authorization, you know. This has been going on for five years I’ve had five months to try to settle it but it’s sad.
Zwillich: What have you heard from the leadership? Is there a desire to solve this this week or are they distracted with debt?
Mica: It really is for the leadership of the Senate to resolve it. It’s over there, we passed an extension, extensions good to the 16th we should be able to finish this -- we could finish them in one hour.
Zwillich: They think you’re trying to jam them with this EAS --you know how they feel about it.
Mica: They passed this -- We took the exact language on essential air service and I’m told, even the three airports where we did add -- three airports that get more than $1,000 subsidy -- that those airports would have been affected by their language so we’ve basically taken their language and sent it back over there and that’s why they’re -- And Republicans on the Senate side agree too, you know, let’s take the extension, get FAA opened up and finalize the negotiations. It’s a pretty heavy penalty to pay for three airports and you know, one of the subsidies -- the one in Nevada is $3,700 per ticket. It’s outrageous.
Reporter: Rockefeller has introduced a clean extension in the Senate – If they send you a clean extension back will you guys accept that?
Mica: I don’t make those decisions. Let me introduce you to Mr. Cantor. He’s the gentleman from Virginia. Maybe you could ask him or his staff. I’m just a mere committee chairman. –
Reporter: Has the leadership indicated whether they will accept that or not?
Mica: We have done our due diligence we have sent this over, its been there since last Wednesday. This is sort of sad you know on the eve of the country’s finances near collapse its sort of I don’t know symbolic of the whole problem here no one is willing to eliminate any wasteful programs…this doesn’t have a dramatic effect, granted, on finances. But to continue these subsidies when the senate has passed this language they said well, it’s not common to have legislation on an extension. That’s not true they put an entire bill on one of the 17 extensions. They did. Tey said we didn’t appoint a conference committee, we’ve pre-conferenced. They had no bill passed the first two years they had this so there was no conference. And then we had five months until we went out of session and they never appointed conferees, so every argument they can raise about the House’s action is invalid.
Zwillich: What’s the score of the EAS language, how much are you saving?
Mica: It’s in the millions, I can’t tell you but you know, the EAS is symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington. It grew from a $50 million program ten years ago to in the neighborhood of $200 million. We can’t eliminate subsidies at airports that have service within 90 miles or that are subsidizing each ticket between $1,500 and $3,700 for three airports. No more needs to be said.
Reporter: What about the labor provision?
Mica: That’s not anything to do with the extension we’ve sent them a clean extension with the EAS provision that they passed. If I have to do additional extensions they will not like what will be in them.