DANA MILBANK: Fla. House veteran turned FAA into war zone

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican blamed for single-handedly shutting down the Federal Aviation Administration, sounded like a beaten man when he called me Thursday evening.
The usually biting chairman of the House Transportation Committee spoke with remorse about the standoff, which caused furloughs of 74,000 people, delays to airport-safety projects, and the loss of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
“I’ve had a brutal week, getting beat up by everybody,” Mica told me, minutes after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal that would end the shutdown, at least until Congress returns next month.
“I didn’t know it would cause this much consternation,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to get the broom and the shovel and clean up the mess.”
Like the debt-limit standoff, the FAA debacle confirmed that Washington’s wheels have come off. But the outcome was different. In the debt crisis, Senate Democrats and the White House accepted House Republican demands rather than risk default. This time, Democrats let the shutdown happen and then blamed Republicans.
Under Thursday’s bipartisan agreement, Democrats accepted Mica’s conditions for keeping the FAA open for a month with the understanding that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would grant waivers nullifying the objectionable provisions.
Mica’s experience shows the high-risk nature of business in the new Washington.
Mica started out with a sensible aim: He wanted to clean up years of messy funding for the FAA. Lawmakers hadn’t been able to agree on issues such as rural-airport subsidies and landing slots at Washington’s Reagan National, so they kept the agency going with 20 stop-gap funding bills since 2007.
But Mica overreached. Letting his anti-labor ideology take over, he tried to use the FAA bill to overturn a decision by the National Mediation Board to rescind an old rule that had made it unusually difficult for airline workers to organize. Delta Air Lines furiously lobbied Congress to intervene.
Mica knew Senate Democrats would resist, so he tried to create a bargaining chit: He drafted plans to cut funds for small airports in the home states of Reid (Nevada) and Jay Rockefeller (West Virginia), chairman of the Senate transportation panel.
The Floridian publicly admitted his ruse.
Senate Democrats, seizing on Mica’s admission that the bill was a “tool,” refused to deal. They let the shutdown happen and railed against Mica after lawmakers left for recess.
The Orlando Sentinel, near Mica’s district, took the congressman to task and said it was “pathetic” that “members of Congress now are enjoying their summer vacations, while some essential FAA inspectors are working without pay.”
Mica, as much as anybody, created a culture of distrust.
“People don’t have to get so personal,” he said with a sigh. “A lot of people hate me now, and think I’m the worst thing in the world for what I did.” It’s “this sort of gotcha,” he said, “that’s changed the dynamics of people working more effectively together.”
Hopefully he’ll remember that the next time he sticks it to the other side.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@wash post.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.