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Budget Impasse, Partial Shutdown Costing FAA Millions in Lost Revenue

August 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Since July 23, the FAA has furloughed nearly 4,000 employees and shut down construction grants for workers at airport facilities. Judy Woodruff discusses the budget impasse, which is costing the FAA millions in lost revenue, with Public Radio International's Todd Zwillich and USA Today's Ben Mutzabaugh.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a different stalemate in Congress: a big fight over the Federal Aviation Administration, one that’s already having an effect.

The planes kept coming and going at the nation’s airports today, but there was new urgency in Washington about the agency overseeing those flights. The FAA’s operating authority expired 11 days ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s another Washington-inflicted wound on America and Congress needs to break that impasse now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since July 23, the FAA has furloughed nearly 4,000 federal employees and shut down construction grants for work on control towers and other airport facilities.

The agency has also lost more than $250 million in uncollected ticket taxes. Meanwhile, Congress remained deadlocked. House Republicans already passed a bill that cut $16.5 million in subsidies for small airports under the so-called Essential Air Service Program. Members of the House went home last night, with the Senate set to follow.

And, today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled that Democrats might have to give way.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev. majority leader: The Essential Air Service is a program that I believe in. Sometimes, you have to be reasonable. And I thing, as do — we learned with this big deal we have just done, sometimes, you have to step back and find out what’s best for the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats had complained the Republicans’ real goal is overturning a new rule by the government’s National Mediation Board. It lets airline workers unionize by a majority of those voting. For years, workers who didn’t vote were assumed to be opposed to joining a union.

Republicans, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, have charged that Democrats put loyalty to their union allies over extending the FAA’s authority.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: Correct the National Mediation Board, get union elections back to where a majority of employees are requisite in order to have a union, and I don’t think there would be any problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If nothing changes, the FAA could lose more than $1 billion from uncollected ticket taxes before Congress returns from its August recess.

In the meantime, the flying public has not benefited. In fact, nearly all major U.S. airlines have raised fares to what they would be if the taxes were still being collected.

For more on the impact of the shutdown and the politics surrounding it, we are joined by Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for “The Takeaway,” a program on Public Radio International and WNYC Radio — he also writes for the public radio blog Transportation Nation — and Ben Mutzabaugh, who covers the aviation industry for USA Today and writes a blog called Today in the Sky.

Thank you both for being — being with us.

Ben Mutzabaugh, I gather from what you just told me that reporters covering this had no idea this was going to not get resolved before Congress went into recess.

BEN MUTZABAUGH, USA Today: Well, you know, we’re used to a lot of bluster from Washington, so I don’t think that’s anything new.

And we heard threats along a number of topics. And even if you look at the debt ceiling, you know, eventually, something got done. It wasn’t the most eloquent of ways to have resolved that situation. And I think a lot of just — at least speaking for myself, I assumed that you would hear the finger-pointing, the threats, the bluffs and eventually in this economy, how could you go to recess with 4,000 FAA workers on furlough and all of the broader implications that ripple out from that?

It just — I was very surprised that they’re walking away from this right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Todd Zwillich, we heard Sen. Reid, the majority leader, say in that piece just a second ago that it — he was signaling, it sounded like, that Democrats might just have to give up and go with the Republican position. What happened?

TODD ZWILLICH, Public Radio International: That’s right. And it took less than an hour for aides to senior Democrats to put out the word: That’s not the case. We’re not bending. We’re not bending to the House on this.

It’s a little bit of a mystery as to — as to the reason why. It’s clear that Sen. Reid got some pushback from his own Democrats who have been on the floor fighting for what they call a clean extension — a temporary extension. This would only be a six-week extension to the FAA authorization. These things are done routinely.

And, by the way, this was the 21st temporary extension. The FAA has been a very difficult agency for Congress to deal with over the last couple of years. But people closer to Sen. Reid say that the reason — the reason for the change wasn’t a change of mind, but a change on the other side of the aisle, that there was some movement on the National Mediation Board union issue, that the House might have been willing to relent on that.

As soon as they pull back, Democrats pull back. To be honest, Judy, it’s a little bit unclear why the change so quickly from Sen. Reid’s statement just off the Senate floor to less than an hour later, when Democrats scrambled to say: We’re not going anywhere.

I do want to point out, however, the Senate is still in session as we speak. The House is not in recess. The House is in pro forma session. I’m not saying that they can necessarily reach a deal and pass something that staves off the shutdown for the rest of the summer. I’m saying it’s possible, if there were to be a breakthrough and the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate were to be able to agree at least on this short-term extension, there is no reason why the Senate can’t move it quickly and the House could somehow shop it around and get it moved through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it would have to move quickly.

TODD ZWILLICH: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Mutzabaugh, let’s go to what is at the core, at least part of the core, of this, and this is this National Mediation Board.

We heard Sen. Hatch say that, if you could just figure this out, get the board to change its ruling on how these unions add members. Explain what’s at the heart of that.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Sure.

And this really came to the forefront recently with the merger of Delta and Northwest. The flight attendants and some other union groups there wanted to unionize. As you said in your report previously, an absent vote was a no-vote, which — so, essentially, this change to make unionization count only on the votes cast makes it a little bit easier for unions to form at airlines.

So that’s kind of at the center of the debate. But the critics of both sides here, both of the Republicans, who want this labor issue attached to the FAA, and critics of the Democrats, who have had the subsidy issue involved, they’re saying, hey, just pass this as a clean bill without any of these flyers attached, and debate these other issues in Congress, not as a funding issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just to clarify, what Republicans are saying is, we don’t like the fact that this would be easier for these unions to add members. Is that right?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: That’s — yes, they may not say it in so blunt a terms, but that’s at the heart of — they want to go back to the old rules where it was harder to form a union at non-union workplaces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Democrats are pushing back and holding up the subsidy for these rural airports?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: It’s a little tit for tat. And of course you are having the two sides fall back into positions that they have historically been associated with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Todd Zwillich, then remind us what’s at stake here. We have heard FAA employees laid off. Is safety an issue here at all?

TODD ZWILLICH: It’s not supposed to be.

One thing on everybody’s mind is air traffic control. Air traffic controllers are exempt from this mess in Congress and from the shutdown. So don’t worry about that part of your safety. Safety inspectors are on the job also. So that part is not affected.

But what’s at stake is the 4,000 employees — more than 4,000 employees that you mentioned in a bad economy, tens of thousands of more employees who work for private companies that builds contracts for towers and runways and other places, not to mention, can I say, just Americans’ faith in Congress, which is at an all-time low.

We just got passed this bruising debt limit fight that went to the brink. Congress’ popularity is — if you think it could go any lower, it actually did. And now we’re in yet another shutdown situation. That’s really what’s at stake here.

It will get solved — it will get solved eventually. The difference between the House and the Senate is $16 million. Nobody really cares about three airports in the Essential Air Service, really. Sure, individual members might care, but they can be placated.

This is a showdown of ego and will and posturing in a very, very toxic environment. Nobody wants to give an inch here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, Ben Mutzabaugh, the traveling public, the person flying — going — flying somewhere in this country is not going to see a difference.

So, where then is the pressure on members of Congress to resolve it, either today or in September, when Congress comes back?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, that’s going to be interesting to see where it plays out. If they couldn’t do it now, even in the face of this really horrific economic situation, that they’re laying — that they’re furloughing FAA workers.

And the number of construction jobs that are affected by this, by the way, is put by one estimate to be at 70,000 people who have had to walk away from construction sites. So, I mean, if that doesn’t give them the political will to figure this out, it’s hard to imagine what’s going to be so different in September.

I think it’s really going to be — I don’t know who is going to blink or cry uncle or whatever euphemism you want to use, but it’s going to be — they need to get it fixed soon, and it’s just hard to imagine what’s going to be so fundamentally different come September.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying — but members of Congress are hearing from somebody that they need to get this resolved?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, presumably, none of their constituents, whether you’re Republican or Democrat or independent. I don’t think there is very much for any of us to be happy about.

Safety isn’t being affected, but by the same token, it’s slowing safety upgrades that are coming down the pike. So there are some real consequences down the road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd Zwillich, finally, to you on this question of who — where is any pressure or incentive going to be on members to resolve this, whether they do it right now, this week, or when they come back in the fall?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, there is going to be pressure on the long-term FAA authorization and the union issues.

Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a whole great deal of pressure on this smaller temporary authorization and the shutdown. Look, it’s August. People might not be paying that much attention to Washington and the news coming up.

Frankly, members of Congress, you won’t be surprised to hear, have been pretty much distracted and overwhelmed by the debt limit fight, just like everybody else. There’s only a couple of members who have been really thinking about this. You get the sense that today, as the clock was ticking, it was kind of an afterthought and there was a lot of scrambling going on to get a final agreement, the old jamming strategy of one House jams the other side, goes home.

It sometimes works. This time, it didn’t. And it’s hard to see where the pressure is to get a — to really get a deal now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a remarkable spectacle coming on top of another remarkable spectacle.

Todd Zwillich and Ben Mutzabaugh, we thank you both.

TODD ZWILLICH: Pleasure.