TOPICS > Politics

FAA Shutdown Coming to an End, But Funding Fight Still Looms

August 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Congressional leaders announced Thursday they had reached a bipartisan agreement to temporarily extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which would end the nearly two-week partial shutdown but leave long-term funding in question. Jeffrey Brown discusses the deal with Public Radio International's Todd Zwillich.

JEFFREY BROWN: The nearly two-week-long partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration appears to be over, at least for now.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that his chamber will pass a House bill tomorrow authorizing funding for the FAA through mid-September. That will allow some 74,000 transportation and construction employees to get back to work, but a long-term funding solution remains elusive.

Todd Zwillich is the Washington correspondent for “The Takeaway,” a program on Public Radio International. He’s been covering the story closely and joins us now once again.

Welcome back.

TODD ZWILLICH, Public Radio International: Good to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first question is, how did this suddenly come together? We thought everybody was gone, right?

TODD ZWILLICH: Bilateral temporary disarmament…



TODD ZWILLICH: … is what we have.

Both the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, have been at a standoff for about two weeks over this. And right around the time the debt limit bill was getting done — remember that? Remember how much energy that took?


TODD ZWILLICH: This was lingering in the background. And a lot of people ignored it. Reporters ignored it. A lot of members of Congress ignored it because they were just worrying about much bigger things.

Well, when the debt deal got settled and the Senate was in for one more day, it came time to end the standoff or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, what I said was the Senate is going to pass a House bill.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what does that mean? And what — so what is the deal here?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, the Senate is actually not on recess technically, so they can do this very easily tomorrow. Wave of the gavel, it’s done.

Part of the standoff was that the House had passed a temporary authorization bill for the next six weeks, but they legislated on that. They made some changes to a rural air service subsidy that’s a little bit of a bone of contention. But it’s not even that controversial.

Senators were upset because it’s not usually done. You don’t usually legislate on a temporary authorization. So the reason I call this bilateral temporary disarmament is the Senate, which had refused to accept the House language, has now said: We will accept it, fine.

However, here’s why it is bilateral disarmament. The Senate accepts the House bill, which previously they had refused to do, but the Obama administration comes to Democrats’ rescue, uses a waiver provision in the bill to say, even though the law will be on the books to get rid of this subsidy that you guys want to keep, the secretary of transportation can waive it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Now, wait a minute. I’m going to try to say this clearly to make sure I have got it, because I — the House bill took out the subsidies for these rural…

TODD ZWILLICH: Some of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of them.

TODD ZWILLICH: Yes, for only about 13 airports.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Senate now says, OK, we will accept that. But?

TODD ZWILLICH: It doesn’t have to go into effect.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t go into effect because the transportation secretary can waive that provision and allow the funding.

TODD ZWILLICH: Can waive it for one or all of the airports. The Obama administration has not said that he will waive it for all 13 or 15 airports that could be affected. But he has the discretion to do so.

Keep in mind that these airports are in places like Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, West Virginia, Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, and other places around the country. So, Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, will have the authority now to enforce this bilateral temporary disarmament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he not have that authority before?

TODD ZWILLICH: It was always in the House bill. He always could have done this.

The problem — and Republicans were saying all along, the secretary can do this if he wants to. Really, the problem was the sticking in the eye of senators, because the House had legislated where they don’t usually legislate, and, also, as we have talked about before, a union issue in the background, not on this bill…


TODD ZWILLICH: … but on a larger bill that was really a bone of contention between Republicans and Democrats which still has to be fought out. It is not settled. That will be back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Now, so where does that stand? That is just unresolved.

TODD ZWILLICH: That’s unresolved. It won’t be resolved. And they’re going to fight it out in September.

This bill only gets us to September. And when it runs out, that issue comes back on a broader FAA bill. And that’s about union rules, Obama administration rules that govern who gets to vote and not vote when an airline or a railway unionizes, about whose — which workers have their votes count. And it is contentious.

It’s — it — this is party ideology, unions vs. management.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the Senate comes in tomorrow, passes this quickly. How soon do all these workers get back to work?

TODD ZWILLICH: The next — the next work day, which ostensibly would be Monday, workers can start getting back to work at the FAA.

Now, keep in mind, the 4,000 workers at the FAA can go right back to work. They’re government workers — 70,000 private sector workers who work for construction companies whose contracts have been suspended because of this mess might not get back to work so fast, because it might take a little bit of red tape and some doing to get those contracts going again.

JEFFREY BROWN: There — there was clearly a lot of public pressure here. Was there — was this driven by embarrassment in the end, or, as you said, there was so much going on, it just got pushed side? But then it got a lot of attention.

TODD ZWILLICH: It got a lot of attention because the debt deal was done, and then it was laid bare.


TODD ZWILLICH: And everyone could see it.

There was a little bit of pressure mounting. There was a backbencher member of Congress, a fellow named Steven* LaTourette from Ohio, who is not well-known, but called a press conference today because he was fed up.

He even used some language that I don’t want to use on your broadcast to describe how fed up he was and wanted to embarrass people to get it done, on both sides of the aisle, by the way, not just Democrats.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Todd Zwillich, thanks again.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.


* Todd Zwillich used the incorrect first name. This transcript has been corrected.