Senate COVID Bill Stalled; House Plan Would More than Double USDOT Appropriations

4:45 p.m.

The Senate is still stuck in a partisan logjam over its coronavirus response legislation, having failed again this afternoon to get the necessary 60 votes to move the legislative process forward. (They fell 11 votes short earlier this afternoon, with Doug Jones (D-AL) the only Democrat to vote with Republicans in favor of moving the process along.) (See our summary of the Senate bill unveiled yesterday morning and see bill text here.)

Meanwhile, House Democrats are about to unveil their own (much bigger) bill, though it is an open question whether Speaker Pelosi has the votes to pass the bill (or pass anything – a lot of House members really do not want to travel to DC right now, and if House Republicans sit out en masse as a tactic, Pelosi probably couldn’t get 218 members to show up, which means the House could not pass anything except by unanimous consent).

(8:45 p.m. 3/23 update: House Democrats have released the text of their proposed bill. Some things have changed from the version summarized here, but the transportation parts to not appear to have changed.)

The House bill increases the amount of money directly appropriated to the U.S. Department of Transportation from $31 billion in the Senate bill to $77 billion, mostly by switching much of the financial support for air carriers from loans to direct appropriations. (The Senate bill has $58 billion in air carrier loan and loan guarantee authority, but no grants, while the House bill has $37 billion in appropriations for grants to carriers to pay employee salaries and benefits, plus $21 billion in loans for the same overall $58 billion total. The House bill has an additional $3 billion in grants for contractors of air carriers.)

The appropriation totals line up like this:

Airline aid. The appropriations in Division A of the House bill are followed by an entire Division R of the bill devoted to airline labor issues. The $40 billion appropriation for grants is divided, with $37 billion for air carriers under Part 121 or Part 135 (if the Part 135 carrier transports passengers on a schedule or property on a scheduled or unscheduled basis) and $3 billion for airline ground support or catering contractors. The President is required to divide the grants to recipients by the amount of money each recipient spent on salaries and benefits from six-month period from April 1 – September 30, 2019 (any remainder could be given out at the President’s discretion). Grants “shall exclusively be used for the continuation of payment of employee wages, salaries, and benefits…”

The House bill has stock buyback and executive compensation restrictions similar to, but a bit more restrictive than, the Senate bill, but it also adds a new requirement that airlines receiving aid can’t increase outsourcing of heavy maintenance work outside the U.S.  Title II of the House bill contains a long list of new labor protections for airlines receiving aid, including guaranteed union representation on boards of directors and guaranteed health care for contractor employees, and a $15 minimum wage requirement for all employees and contractor employees.

The House bill would establish a new Office of Airline Financial Oversight to perform annual financial “stress tests” on the airlines, forever.

And title VI of Division R includes bans on airline price gouging during a declared emergency and a requirement for full refunds during a declared emergency – but it also requires quarterly reporting by airlines to USDOT of ancillary fee receipts, forever.

The House bill also appropriates $1.1 billion for airlines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Division R includes an entire title (VII) devoted to the issue.

Airport aid. The House bill contains the same $10 billion appropriation for airport grants that the Senate bill contains, but distributes it differently. The House bill would put the money out entirely under the existing AIP formula (“as set forth in clauses (i) and (ii) 24 of section 47114(c)(1)(C) of title 49, United States Code”), with any remainder to be distributed int he percentage of each airport’s share of total annual enplanements. (The Senate money would go out half via formula and half based on indebtedness costs.) The federal cost share attached to the grants would be 100 percent, and the bill would increase the federal cost share for FY 2020 AIP grants to 100 percent as well.

Airports could use the grants in the House bill “for the purposes of emergency response, cleaning, sanitization, janitorial services, staffing, workforce retention, paid leave, procurement of protective health equipment and training for employees and contractors, debt service payments, infrastructure projects and airport operations.”

Airports would be required to continue to employ at least 90 percent of their workforce (as of date of enactment) through December 31, 2020.

Transit aid. The House bill appropriate $25 billion for aid to mass transit authorities instead of the Senate’s $20 billion. Under the House bill, agencies could use the money “for the operating expenses of transit agencies related to the response to a public health emergency as described in section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, including, beginning on January 31, 2020, reimbursement for operating costs to maintain service and lost revenue due to the public health emergency, the purchase of personal protective equipment, and paying the administrative leave of operations personnel due to reductions in service…”

The House bill also uses four different formulas rather than the Senate’s two to distribute the money. The difference in formulas under the Senate bill appears driven by New York City – under the urban formula by which the Senate bill would give out $16 billion of its $20 billion, and in the FY 2020 apportionments, New York City MTA received 11.4 percent of the total using that formula. But the House bill only gives about $13.9 billion out under that formula and then gives another $7.6 billion out under the state of good repair formula, and NYC MTA got 27.4 percent of that total.

Amtrak. The House bill contains $1 billion for Amtrak in a way that appears substantially identical to the Senate bill.

Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. While the House bill appears to go far beyond the Senate bill in terms of including things that don’t have anything directly to do with coronavirus response, the House bill does not repeat the Senate bill’s provision that essentially makes future Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund appropriations off-budget. (Not sure who on the House side doesn’t like the HMTF.)


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