TOPICS > Politics

LaHood on FAA Furloughs: Congress Must Pass Long-Term Funding

July 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate adjourned Friday without reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration's budget, which left nearly 4,000 employees out of work immediately. Ray Suarez discusses the status of the FAA's budget problems and what could be done to fix them with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

GWEN IFILL: Now, another budget impasse, this one already being felt at the nation’s airports.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: It will remain business as usual at the nation’s airport with air traffic controllers still on the job. But nearly 4,000 other Federal Aviation Administration employees are out of work immediately, at least for the time being.

The Senate adjourned Friday without reauthorizing the agency’s budget. As a result, airlines’ authority to collect the 7.5 percent ticket tax ran out, costing the FAA about $30 million a day in lost revenue — at issue, Republican provisions in the budget bill eliminating $16.5 million in subsidies for 10 small rural airports and a proposal to limit airline workers from unionizing by simple majority vote.

The shutdown means about $2.5 billion in federal airport construction grants are on hold, including work on control towers at airports in at least five states. Long-term funding for the agency expired in 2007. Congress has kept it operating through a series of 20 short-term extension bills since that time.

While officials stress there will be no immediate impact on day-to-day airport operations, including security screening, it won’t mean much to the flying public either. It is a windfall for airlines no longer turning over a portion of the ticket price to the federal government. By Saturday night, nearly all major U.S. airlines had raised fares by the amount of the taxes that expired the night before.

And joining me now is the secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood.

Secretary, let’s begin with the mechanics of this problem. What had to happen by Friday night that didn’t?

SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: Congress needed to pass the 21st extension, which they have done on 20 other occasions, without controversial words in them, without controversial provisions.

If they had done that, the president would have signed it, 4,000 of our people wouldn’t have been furloughed on Saturday morning, and thousands of construction workers would have gone to work on construction sites around the country today. And they weren’t able to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: So, the majority on the House Transportation Committee put things in there that the Senate simply couldn’t sign off on?

RAY LAHOOD: That’s correct, two provisions which were mentioned in the piece here, one, adding some airports that wouldn’t qualify for essential air service dollars and the union provision which the Congress — excuse me — which the president has said he will veto.

Those weren’t in any of the other 20 extensions. They didn’t need to be in 21st extension. That debate can go on after we continue these projects where construction workers are working and where our people are on the job doing their job.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned 20 previous extensions. This wasn’t a surprise. They knew the deadline was looming, and simply let it happen?

RAY LAHOOD: They let it happen. Congress is in session today. They’re in session tonight. They should pass a 21st, clean extension without these controversial positions — provisions, so that 4,000 FAA employees can come to work tomorrow, and thousands of construction workers can begin working tomorrow on construction projects in just about every major airport in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: If you go to an airport tomorrow morning, you will still be screened by a member of the Transportation Security Administration. The people running the tower will still be there and making sure planes are landing and taking off on time.

So who are these 4,000 people who got furloughed Friday night at midnight. What do they do that’s not getting done right now?

RAY LAHOOD: These are people that are working on next-generation technology. They’re doing research. They’re helping us with the kind of projects that we want to move ahead on in the future.

They’re — they’re hardworking federal employees who work for America trying to make sure that the FAA continues to be not only the safest, but the best aviation system in the world. This is not the way to run the best aviation system in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: When the current chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bob Mica of Florida, was the ranking member, and the Democrats controlled the House, he had an interest already in seeing that people who do essential work in the nation’s transportation system didn’t form unions. He was interested in making it difficult.

Well, the old saying around Washington that elections have consequences, is this one of the consequences? He gets to weigh in on that provision, and it’s a principle that he thinks is worth fighting for.

RAY LAHOOD: Well, look it, he can have that fight during the debate on the overall FAA bill. But he shouldn’t have that fight that allows for 4,000 people to be furloughed. These people aren’t getting a paycheck. These are people that work for America’s aviation system.

And the construction workers, the largest — one of the largest unemployment segments in our economy today are the building trades, the construction trades. It’s over 50 percent. Why put all of these people out of work? Why should we do that? It’s not right. It’s not fair.

Sign — pass a clean bill. The president will sign it. Have your debate on the union provision. Have your debate on whether small communities should receive money, but not at the expense of these construction workers, who can ill afford not to go to work, and our employees who are working for America’s best aviation system in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Why is the Federal Aviation Administration living on these short-term appropriations in the first place? Why isn’t it just funded like other agencies of the federal government?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, frankly, because Congress hasn’t been able to get its act together and pass a long-term bill, which we need, which will take us into the next-generation technology for putting new technology to guide planes in and out of airports, give us the resources we need to continue to make aviation safe, to make it the best that it is in the world, which America’s aviation system is.

Congress needs to pass a five or six year bill, give us the resources, so we can continue to make progress in aviation.

RAY SUAREZ: But why wasn’t there the long-term appropriation to begin with? Other agencies aren’t being funded this way. You mentioned 21. This is the 21st temporary funding measure that needed to be passed?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, there’s the differences. As you said earlier, Ray, there are — elections have consequences. People want to put controversial things in these bills. And they need to be debated. They need to be worked out. And they can be, but not at the expense of our opportunity to continue to make progress on big construction projects at airports, and on our ability to have our people continue to make aviation the best that it is in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were a member of Congress for a long time, 14 years, right?


RAY SUAREZ: And you worked at the elbow of then Minority Leader Bob Michel.

Had anything like this happened before during your time in Congress?

RAY LAHOOD: These kinds of controversies have occurred over time.

But the kind of controversy that’s been created by Congress not passing a bill is simply not fair to our ability to work on these construction projects, to have construction workers working. We have a lousy economy. We don’t need people out of work for no good reason.

If Congress really cares about jobs, which every member of Congress talks about, if they care about putting their friends and neighbors to work, pass a clean bill. You will put your friends and neighbors back to work building projects in your districts, in your states. That’s the way to put America back to work.

RAY SUAREZ: Can this be remedied one way or another quickly?

RAY LAHOOD: It could be.

RAY SUAREZ: If there’s a conference put together, as was suggested today, can these people be back to work in a matter of days, or does it take…

RAY LAHOOD: As soon as Congress passes another clean extension, the president will sign it. People can be back to work shortly after that.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, thanks for joining us.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Ray.