Impasse Over FAA Reform Bill Continues

June 7, 2016

It has been almost four months since the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved, by a mostly party-line vote, legislation (H.R. 4441) to reauthorize federal aviation policy and split up the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), transferring responsibility for air traffic control to a non-government, non-profit corporation and focusing the remaining FAA on safety oversight.

During that time, the T&I Committee still has not filed its report on the bill, which is supposed to trigger the next stages in the legislative process. And during the time, the Senate has introduced, reported from committee, debated, and passed a much different FAA reauthorization bill (originally S. 2658, now the Senate Amendment to H.R. 636) that would not make any fundamental changes to the FAA’s structure.

T&I chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA)’s proposal has been caught between universal Democratic opposition – on the grounds that the legislation goes too far towards “privatization” and poses both financial and safety risks – and opposition from some on the far-right flank of his own party, who don’t think that his legislation goes far enough towards privatization. It is likely impossible to get the Democrats on board without jettisoning the ATC restructuring proposal entirely, but Shuster has held out hope that, through education and dealmaking, he might be able to get enough recalcitrant Republicans on board with the bill to get it over the 218-vote threshold and through the House.

To that end, Shuster recently met with former Sen. Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank whose grassroots lobbying arm holds a lot of sway with conservative House members) in an effort to get Heritage to lift its opposition to the air traffic control restructuring plan, and Shuster and his staff continue to try and talk to members individually as well.

But T&I’s FAA bill cannot move to the House floor without a component from the Ways and Means Committee, and if the legislation is to accomplish what Shuster wants to accomplish, the Ways and Means component has to be complicated and controversial (deciding which of the existing aviation excise taxes to repeal, which to lessen, and which to leave in place or strengthen) and the Budget Committee would also have to produce its own component adjusting total discretionary spending levels to reflect the removal of air traffic control from the budget. Neither of those panels has shown any signs of moving on this issue anytime soon.

The clock is ticking. The last short-term extension of federal aviation excise taxes and Airport and Airway Trust Fund spending authority (Public Law 114-55) expires on July 15, which is also the last day that the House and Senate are scheduled to be in session prior to Labor Day. This is a hard deadline – the Republican National Convention is the week of July 18 and the Democratic National Convention is the following week.

Senate transportation leaders have repeatedly implored the House to take up some variant of the Senate-passed bill, but unless the House were just to rubber-stamp the Senate bill and abdicate all input into aviation policy in the 114th Congress, this would also involve a lot of visible work from a lot of different House committees – T&I would have to release text of its own alternative (which might differ from the version approved in committee four months ago), the Rules Committee would have to open the process up to amendment, and Ways and Means would either have to add its own component or accede to the Senate. In any case, there are no signs that the House is preparing to do this, and the days until July 15 are passing quickly.

Which begs the question: when will the next short-term extension of aviation programs and funding move through Congress, and how long will it last?

That last extension moved through Congress extremely swiftly – the bill was introduced in the House on the 25th of September, passed the House on the 28th by voice vote, passed the Senate on the 29th by unanimous consent, and was signed into law on the 30th. But that was before either chamber had even introduced a bill, and T&I was busy with the surface transportation bill at that time. Both sides understood that an extension would be necessary.

This time, Thune is indicating that a short-term extension is not the way to go. He told POLITICO earlier today that he feared that any short-term extension (which must, by definition, extend expiring aviation excise taxes and will thus be a “revenue vehicle”) would get bogged down in the Senate by members seeking to get votes on what will likely be the last tax-related measure to go through the Senate before the fall elections.

However, by July 15, the duration of the Senate-passed bill will only be fourteen-and-a-half months. At some point, the line between a short-term extension and a not-very-long-term bill becomes a bit blurry. Thune told POLITICO that a longer extension that included some policy language might be more likely to make it through the Senate. (This raises other problems, as the policy language that Thune speaks out most in favor of relates to aviation security, which is outside the jurisdiction of the T&I Committee).

Still, using past history as precedent, the most likely course of action is for the House to pass another short-term extension (probably to September 30, but possibly until December) in the week leading up to July 15 and hope that the Senate accepts the bill rather than risk a shutdown in aviation excise tax collections and airport construction grants.

House of Representatives Floor Schedule, April-September 2016


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