21…and counting?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the latest temporary funding of the FAA, reauthorization has reached adulthood — that is, temporary approvals are now at 21.

The FAA hasn’t had a full authorization vote since 2003. On 21 occasions, the Senate and House have not been able to agree. They have until Sept. 16 to finally agree or make it 22.

When members of the two sides of Capitol Hill began their sessions 21 times ago they had more than 200 differences. They have narrowed that to 12.

When FAA funding ceased because of the failure to agree on the extension, and 4,000 FAA employees were furloughed as a result, five Democratic Senators sent a letter to the Speaker of the House urging him to quickly appoint conferees “to provide a bipartisan, long-term solution to keep the 74,000 air travel, construction and FAA workers employed when the current extension expires.” But was it necessary for that claimed number to be furloughed? Not really. Furloughs could have been avoided.

Two weeks before the 20th extension expired, the House of Representatives sent an extension bill to the Senate. It contained riders naming cuts in the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which provides subsidies to airlines to provide service to smaller, and perhaps less profitable, cities. There was no mention of the contentious labor issue, which was in the original bill passed by the House and sent to the Senate 21 temporary extensions ago.

The sticking point? The appointment by President Obama of a new member to the National Mediation Board, which resulted in a change to how votes for or against unionization are counted. Before the appointment, the NMB rule was that all failures to vote by eligible workers were counted as “no” votes. The new rule changed that to just a simple majority of all votes cast is the deciding answer in a union election. The Republican-controlled House wants to return to the old rule; the Democratic-controlled Senate doesn’t.

The Senate chose to make a labor question the issue for not approving another temporary extension. Reductions in government subsidies to some small communities do not make the news that disagreements over union voting regulations do. So the Senate chose to let the 20th extension expire and allow the furloughing of some workers.

After several days of news coverage, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood realized that he had the authority all along to ignore the House riders about EAS extensions, so the Senate could agree to the House extension and everybody could go back to work.

FAA employees won’t lose. They had an extra paid vacation. U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) introduced a bill to pay them for the time off. He was joined by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation Committee and Infrastructure Committee, two other Republicans, and one Democrat.

Between now and Sept. 16, conferees may try to resolve those 12 still sticky issues, labor being the primary point of contention. Both sides seem to be dug in. Perhaps that will mean temporary extension 22. Such are the fortunes of Washington politics.

Pilots, fasten your seat belts, there may be turbulence ahead.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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