FAA shutdown shows complete dysfunction of U.S. government

Congress has adjourned for its August recess leaving the Federal Aviation Administration partially shut down because its funding expired last month. Congress has been unable to agree on re-authorizing funding for the agency which oversees and regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the U.S., including operating the air traffic control system.

When Congress allowed the FAA’s funding to expire, the agency also lost its authorization to collect a 7.5% tax on airline tickets which generates about $30 million every day for FAA operations. The airlines which collect this tax for the FAA are not reducing ticket prices. They are just pocketing the abandoned federal tax money.

The shutdown has resulted in furloughs for 4,000 FAA employees and 70,000 contractors who had been at work on FAA-funded airport construction projects. Members of Congress, who all claim their number one priority is American jobs, will not return from vacation until after Labor Day. By then the FAA will have permanently lost $1 billion in uncollected federal tax revenue. 

Why? The House of Representatives has passed a permanent reauthorization for FAA operations. But the Senate refuses to act on the bill because it restores the requirement that airline unions gain the support of a majority of the workers they seek to represent. The House bill would overturn a recent Obama administration regulation requiring only a majority of those voting.

The House bill also provides for the phase-out of the Essential Air Service program which now provides $200 million in federal subsidies to maintain air service to 150 small airports. This is an example of a sacred cow of federal spending which both Republican and Democratic presidents have tried to eliminate, but which Republican and Democratic members of Congress have successfully defended and even increased. The subsidy amounts to more than $3,700 for each of the 500 or so passengers each year who utilize the air service in Ely, Nevada.

Because of the Senate’s refusal to consider the House bill, the House last month passed a temporary funding bill for the FAA, authorizing both spending and tax collection through September 16. But the Senate rejected this temporary measure, too, because it cut $14 million in Essential Air Service subsidies to 16 rural airports. Compare that to the $30 million being lost every day now because of the shut down. 

So in the midst of a deep economic recession, 74,000 American workers lose their jobs because of congressional gridlock. Meanwhile the members of Congress are enjoying their paid vacations and telling their constituents back home how concerned they are about protecting American jobs. 

This debacle at the FAA demonstrates how every dollar of federal spending  has congressional defenders who will fight tooth and nail against any attempt to withhold that dollar from its current beneficiaries.

“Of course we’re for reducing spending and the deficit, but not on the backs of rural residents, or farmers, or (fill in the blank).”   

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