WASHINGTON, D.C. — When lobbyists want Congressional help on issues, they usually seek out members with interests in that issue in a caucus. The informal, bipartisan groups are found in both the House and Senate. But until recently, there were no general aviation caucuses. Now there are active groups in both Houses.
At present, the general aviation caucus in the House has 170 members — making it one of the largest caucuses — while the Senate caucus has 35 members. In the four years since the Congressional general aviation caucuses were formed, they have become an effective way to gain recognition and acceptance for general aviation.
An example of how this works was the recent visit to Capitol Hill by actor and pilot Harrison Ford (pictured above) visited the House caucus.
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), co-chair of the caucus with Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), welcomed Ford to “discuss issues of importance to the general aviation community.”
In a news release to announce Ford’s appearance, Graves said: “The biggest challenge for general aviation is getting our message to all 435 lawmakers, and events like this provide a megaphone to promote general aviation while also helping expand the caucus’ membership.”
During his visit, Ford stressed the importance of general aviation on jobs, citing the value of landing facilities that “come in all shapes and sizes,” with each serving the nation in its own way. He stressed the need to keep contract towers open (despite this and other efforts, the FAA announced four days later it would close 149 towers). Also, Ford reminded the members of Congress that business jets are used for much more than transporting executives. An example he pointed out was how hundreds of jets were used to move Special Olympic athletes to and from their games at no cost.
While few caucus meetings welcome Hollywood personalities such as Harrison Ford, they do gather together important lawmakers — or “law preventers” when proposed legislation would harm aviation — to share views, plans and information.
Many members of Congress are pilots, but until 2009 there were no general aviation caucuses in the U.S. Congress, so general aviation leaders set out to form them. Craig Fuller had just moved into the presidency of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and his background provided important avenues to help get the caucuses started. Fuller had worked in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for cabinet affairs and served as Chief of Staff for the first President Bush. Before coming to Washington he was an executive in public relations firms, another important career experience for influencing public opinion.
In April 2009, assisted by Fuller and other GA heavyweights, Reps. Allen Boyd (R-Fla.) and Vernon Ehlers (D-Mich.) formed the general aviation caucus in the House.
“As a pilot,” Boyd said, “I have seen firsthand the critical role general aviation plays in creating jobs and bolstering the local economy in rural communities across America.”
At the time of forming the caucus, Ehlers was a student pilot who often commented in hearings about the importance of GA. Now retired, his understanding of general aviation was apparent in his questioning of hearing witnesses.
The caucuses give all general aviation groups an important path to reach not only the lawmakers but their staffs as well. Officials with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), National Air Transportation Association (NATA), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and other GA alphabet groups find the caucuses helpful in getting their messages across.
Ed Bolen, NBAA president, notes that the caucuses underscore the recognition by Congress that general aviation creates jobs, provide transportation lifelines across the country, helps businesses succeed, and supports people and communities in times of crisis.
“We’re delighted to work with House and Senate caucuses,” said Bolen, who joined other general aviation activists at the caucus meeting where Ford appeared.