Nearly three months after House and Senate conferees hurriedly agreed to a four-year, $59.2 billion reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the legislation is still mired in a largely partisan dispute over privatization of airport control towers.
At the heart of the matter is language inserted into the bill (HR 2115 — H Rept 108-240) at the behest of the White House during the conference committee markup July 24. The provision would allow the government to contract out air traffic control at 69 airports, with further privatization allowed after Oct. 1, 2007. Most of the airports are in small cities or are secondary fields in busy urban areas such as Miami, San Diego, Atlanta and Chicago.
Democrats and labor unions immediately protested the provision, which was substantially different from what either chamber had passed. The House version would have banned further privatization of air traffic controllers, but not support staff; the Senate version would have banned any privatization. Both provisions were a response to an administration decision to reclassify air traffic control as a commercial rather than inherently governmental function. (Privatization, CQ Weekly, p. 2486)
Moderate, pro-labor Republicans joined with Democrats to oppose the conference report, which GOP leaders have held off the floor out of fear it would not be adopted. They have until Oct. 31 to resolve the issue; that is when a temporary reauthorization of aviation programs, including authority for airport construction projects, runs out. (CQ Weekly, p. 2447)
Meanwhile, sponsors of the bill also have not resolved the objections of House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. Bill Young, R-Fla., who has urged colleagues to vote the conference report down over several aviation security issues.
Among items Young took exception to was language that would lift a limit his committee imposed last year on the number of airport baggage screeners that the Transportation Security Administration could employ, and a provision that would establish a permanent $250 million annual guarantee for airport security projects. (CQ Weekly, p. 2222)
Hoping to break the impasse, Republicans have offered to remove up to 41 of the airports on the privatization list in exchange for the support of lawmakers from those areas for the conference report.
Drafted by John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, the proposal targets mostly Senate Republicans, where support for the bill is considered weakest.
Gary Burns, Mica's spokesman, said Democrats are not being excluded, but acknowledged that the plan focuses on drawing Republican votes mostly in the Senate. "It was one of several proposals that have been discussed and only discussed . . . None of those have yet been agreed to," Burns said, though he refused to elaborate on any other proposals in Mica's inventory.
It was not the first time Republicans had adjusted the airport list. Even before the conference report was finished, Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, exempted two airports in his home state, saying later it was because of "conditions unique to Alaska aviation."
The reaction of Democrats and their labor allies to the votes-for-exemptions proposal was quick, vehement and predictable. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., dubbed the plan the "FAA-NIMBY syndrome."
"Chairman Mica is making it obvious that many Republicans share the 'not-in-my-backyard' mentality when it comes to forcing privatization on air travelers," Hoyer said in an Oct. 16 statement. "This action demonstrates that the GOP doesn't believe their own rhetoric that privatization increases safety."
Similarly, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO accused Republicans of gerrymandering aviation safety, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association called an urgent press briefing Oct. 16 to denounce the proposal.
"This latest proposal would create two standards of aviation safety, a gerrymandered map of where it is safe to fly in this country," according to a statement from the AFL-CIO.
The government currently contracts out the operation of control towers at 219 small airports, with several dozen more eligible for the program. Air traffic controllers have fought further privatization, and their arguments about safety have a receptive audience in Congress.
The conference report on the FAA bill has been on and off the House floor schedule several times over the past month. GOP leaders planned to send it back to conference for repairs, but wanted an agreement in place first. That has proven difficult, mainly because the White House has said Bush would veto a final bill that did not include permission to begin privatizing the airport towers.
Recently the House Rules Committee marked up a measure to send the bill back to conference (H Res 377), but the rule never made it to the floor.
Mica has said he has enough votes to adopt the conference report in the House, but the problem has been in the Senate, where Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., have threatened to block the measure, including a filibuster if necessary.
One aviation lobbyist said Mica's plan would not break the impasse and another extension of FAA programs would be necessary.
"I just don't think that's the solution that ends up getting the thing done," the lobbyist said. "A more likely outcome would be either a sunset provision or some different kind of a process."