WASHINGTON, D.C. — General aviation groups are cautiously optimistic about the changes in Congressional committee leaderships that will bring into power lawmakers who in the past have shown opposition to user fees. Democrats are expected to take a more negative view of changing how the FAA is funded, but reauthorization of the FAA is still one of the major issues to be resolved.
On the House side, a long-time friend of general aviation, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), is expected to head the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He has long questioned the need to change the funding sources of the FAA.
Both of the two members considered for chair of the aviation subcommittee have shown reluctance to change the funding pattern. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) has been the ranking member on the subcommittee and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) held that position before Costello. Both are considered knowledgeable about general aviation. During hearings, when questioning witnesses, both have demonstrated an understanding of GA and the consequences of user fees.
The big unknown is Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the new Speaker of the House. In that position she can use her influence to support or reject bills. She also has the power to determine what bills are brought to the floor for a vote. Pelosi is noted for playing hardball politics, even within her own party, as demonstrated by her strong endorsement of John Murtha (D-Pa.) to be majority leader over Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose position had placed him in line for the post. She suffered a defeat on this move with Hoyer winning by a clear majority. Her early actions have already made some Democrats angry. Whether she can wield the power of Speaker and whether it will be as far left as she has been in the past is still to be determined.
On the other side of the Hill, general aviation lost a good friend when Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) was defeated. He had chaired the aviation subcommittee of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Sen. Ted Stevens, from Alaska, where he knew well the value of general aviation, lost his post as chair of the full committee to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa), whose health is considerably improved, should have Burn’s leadership post on the subcommittee. Rockefeller has often expressed concern about general aviation security.
This brings up another spot to watch that could affect general aviation: the Homeland Security Committee, to be chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Air traffic controllers, who are in a bitter struggle with the FAA, should get a better hearing from the Democratic leadership. Oberstar favors unions and should give a friendlier ear to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is in a tight struggle with FAA over a number of issues.
During the next two years, both parties will be jockeying for position in the 2008 elections. This means there can be strong positions taken on some issues and other issues left to slide. Reauthorization is one way Congress keeps its power over agencies and issues. With FAA reauthorization coming up in 2007, Congress will have more issues to examine at the FAA than just user fees. Previous reauthorization legislation for the FAA has seen bitter struggles over many of the same issues that will come up next year. However, previous reauthorization debates have been when the White House, Department of Transportation, the FAA, and Congress were all controlled by the same political party. This next year will be different.
Reauthorization is due by September, giving almost a year to argue positions. Hang on to your hat and fasten your seat belt. There will undoubtedly be a lot of turbulence.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.