This shocking display of legislative ineptitude has imposed a partial shutdown on the FAA, affecting $2.5 billion in federal airport construction grants. Air traffic controllers remain on the job, but work has stopped at dozens of sites across the country where projects are in limbo. At a time when jobs are scarce and the construction industry is ailing, this is the worst time possible for a halt in funding.
All this is bad enough, but wait — it gets worse.
At a time when the government needs revenue to pay its bills, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the government stands to lose about $200 million a week in airline ticket taxes because the FAA lost the authority to collect the money last Friday.
Does the tax holiday mean lower fares for passengers? Fuggedaboutit. Most major airlines are pocketing the money and stiffing consumers.
The deadlock over a routine appropriations process – which mirrors the larger dispute over the debt ceiling – brought a tongue-lashing from Secretary LaHood, who said it has put 4,000 people out of work. He pleaded with lawmakers to act immediately to put the FAA back in business.
LaHood and some members of the Senate are calling on the airlines to pass the tax break on to consumers, to no avail. “It’s not fair to the flying public,” LaHood said. But the best some airlines have done so far is to tell consumers that they might have recourse with the IRS when they file a tax return next year.
The dispute between the House and Senate mainly involves a disagreement over a $16.5 million cut for Essential Air Services, subsidies paid to 13 rural communities to help defray airline operating costs. Republicans contend it represents wasteful spending. Democrats say it’s the only way airlines will provide service to lightly-used airports. There’s also a dispute over union rules for workers.
These are serious issues, but surely reasonable lawmakers can come to an agreement without shutting down a vital government agency. Over the years, Republicans and Democrats have managed to keep the FAA open through a series of 20 short-term extension bills without leaving it unfunded.
The real problem is Congress’ inability to iron out partisan disputes, a failure of governance at the most basic level. As we may yet see in the dispute over the debt ceiling, the FAA debacle shows there are real – and negative – consequences when members of Congress fail to do their jobs.