Additional Airline Payroll Support Promised But Not (Yet) Delivered

U.S. airlines commenced plans to lay off over 30,000 employees yesterday, following the expiration of the no-layoffs clause accompanying the $32 billion in aviation sector aid enacted in the CARES Act in March 2020. A further infusion of federal aid in exchange for six more months of the no-layoffs policy was discussed in Congress this week, but never materialized.

(Several major airlines did take out loans from the Treasury Department this week, totaling $13 billion, but those loans do not carry no-layoffs clauses after September 30.)

In the Senate, Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Transportation-Housing Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced S. 4774 on September 29, providing an additional $28.8 billion in payroll support to air carriers and their contractors, in exchange for extending the no-layoffs policy from October 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021. ($11.4 billion of the money would be a new appropriation and the remainder would come from reprogramming unused CARES funds.)

Wicker and Collins then put the legislation through the Senate’s “hotlining” process, whereby the Republican and Democratic cloakrooms contact the office of each Senator from their party and ask if their Senator would object to a unanimous consent agreement to take up and pass the bill. The office of one Senator, believed to be a Republican, objected to the hotline request, and the Senate adjourned yesterday at 4:30 p.m. until next Monday (October 5), meaning that they could not return and pass a bill between now and then, even if all 100 of them wanted to.

In the House, language very similar to the Wicker-Collins bill was included in the massive $2.2 trillion COVID aid bill passed by the House this week (starting on page 1,903 of this version of the bill). The House version added a continuation of minimum service requirement and would not reprogram any CARES Act money. The House bill also adds a “clawback” provision in case any carrier or contractor fired any employees in violation of their CARES promise.

But the overall House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate, and there is still no guarantee that a large COVID aid package will be negotiated and signed into law at all. For the last several months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has steadfastly refused to let the House consider individual COVID aid bills, piecemeal, in hopes of keeping the pressure on for a multi-trillion-dollar omnibus package.

In the absence of a deal on an overall bill, and with the no-layoff grace period of the CARES Act having expired, House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced a stand-alone aviation payroll bill (H.R. 8504, text here) this morning and threatened to defy Pelosi, go to the House floor, and ask unanimous consent to pass H.R. 8504.

That appeared to be averted when Pelosi issued a public statement at around noon today, promising that “We will either enact Chairman DeFazio’s bipartisan stand-alone legislation or achieve this as part of a comprehensive negotiated relief bill, extending for another six months the Payroll Support Program.”

However, Pelosi did not give a time frame. The headline of the press release was “Pelosi Statement on Imminent Relief for Airline Workers,” but House leaders were already in the process of holding the last vote of the week, freeing up members to leave town, with no fixed date to return.

DeFazio went to the House floor anyway, just after 1:30 p.m. today, to ask unanimous consent to take up and pass H.R. 8504, but the Speaker pro tempore (Rep. Kendra Horn (D-CA)) denied his request, on the advice of the House Parliamentarian, saying that longtime guidelines set by the Speaker prohibit the entertaining of unanimous consent requests to pass bills unless approved in advance by the Speaker, the Democratic floor leader, the Republican floor leader, the committee chairman of jurisdiction, and the committee ranking minority member of jurisdiction.

DeFazio said (and a source confirms to ETW) that the holdout was “Republican leadership” meaning that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), possibly at the request of some members of his caucus, was the behind-the-scenes objector who prevented H.R. 8504 from coming up. Shortly after DeFazio stormed off, the House adjourned until next week.

Pelosi’s statement also called for the airline industry to “delay their devastating job cuts as relief for airline workers is being advanced in Congress.” But with Pelosi unable to give a firm date on House approval of a bill (much less the Senate), the airlines are carrying on with their layoff plans, which could be reversed if Congress ever does provide more payroll assistance.

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