WASHINGTON -- With the authorization for Federal Aviation Administration funding set to expire in two weeks, House and Senate leadership don't appear to be any closer to a long-term agreement than they were leading up to this summer's embarrassing shutdown, which halted 250 aviation-related projects and put an estimated 80,000 contractors and government employees temporarily out of work.
In fact, House Republicans still haven't delegated members to a committee conference where their differences with Senate Democrats can be hashed out -- increasing the possibility of shutdown déjà vu come Sept. 16.
"House Republicans put thousands of people out of work this summer by shutting down the FAA," said Vincent Morris, spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate commerce and transportation committee. "We'd hate to see a replay of that this fall. A good first step would be if they would finally appoint conferees."
The FAA hasn’t had a long-term funding plan in place since its last one expired in 2007. Since then, the agency has been relying on a series of temporary extensions that have proven vulnerable to political gamesmanship.
When neither a short nor long-term agreement was reached in June, the FAA was forced to shut down all of its non-essential operations and stop collecting aviation taxes until temporary funding was secured six weeks later. Some personnel were even forced to pay expenses out their own pockets as they continued to work.
The most contentious element of the long-term funding bill has been an anti-labor provision inserted by Republicans that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize. Democrats, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have accused House Republicans and the transportation committee chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), of inserting the provision at the behest of Delta.
“The claims about Delta are not accurate," Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said in an email. "The prior shutdown involved other provisions that had nothing to do with Delta. We support FAA reauthorization and strongly oppose an FAA shutdown."
The labor provision may wind up in the long-term bill once again -- and perhaps even a short-term bill as well, if Republicans choose to finally force the issue. Sources say virtually all of the other major issues at play have been resolved, leaving the labor element the last to be negotiated. A spokesperson for Mica would only say that the congressman is "returning to D.C. to consult with Republican leadership before granting the 22nd FAA extension."
"The question is if John Mica is willing to fall on his sword by shutting down the FAA again or holding up a much needed long-term bill," said Shane Larson, legislative director for the Communications Workers of America. "All for an unrelated and controversial labor provision, all for the benefit of one airline: Delta."
While Americans have roundly criticized Congress for doing little to stimulate a sagging economy, the FAA stalemate is a unique case where Congressional inaction has actively hurt the economy. Many of the workers who were furloughed last time still haven't been paid for the paychecks they missed, which is money that hasn’t being pumped into local markets. And even though stop-work orders may be issued and then lifted at a moment's notice, massive construction projects unfortunately can't be stopped and restarted with such ease.
"It's not easy, and it's not free," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. "Taxpayers end up paying more every time they shut it down. They have to secure these sites."
"If this happens again," Turmail went on, "especially in the northern states with short construction seasons and long winters, you could have delays not of a week or two weeks but of four months."
The stakes are high for FAA employees and contractors vulnerable to more furloughs.
Michael Weatherby, a 43-year-old computer specialist at the William J. Hughes Technical Center at the airport in Atlantic City, N.J., was among the 650 workers furloughed there last time and says he doesn’t know if he'll ever recoup the money he missed. Last weekend, during Hurricane Irene, his forced evacuation wound up costing him around $1,000 including hotel. Now he's worried he may be furloughed again.
"People here are nervous about it," said Weatherby, who added that many of his colleagues, too, were hurt by the last shutdown. "Unfortunately, it’s a matter of them being able to do the right thing and compromise. They really haven’t proven they can do that at this point. ... It's putting people out of work just for political leveraging."
That leveraging could hurt certain Republicans more than others. After the last furlough, Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, the congressman for Weatherby's district, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hosted a town hall at the Hughes Technical Center that had a turnout that Weatherby described as "massive." The attendees told woeful stories about how the last stoppage had financially crippled them. One transportation official said her eyes welled up as she heard the stories.
According to a spokesman for LoBiondo, the congressman has voted both in committee and on the House floor to strip the FAA bill of the controversial labor provision, putting him at odds with many of his colleagues.
"He made it clear ... that he does not support its inclusion," said spokesman Jason Galanes in an email. "The Congressman strongly supports finishing this critical bill that has languished in Congress for four years."
The best incentive for an agreement may be the embarrassment and criticism both parties will face in the event of another shutdown. LaHood, a Republican, will likely blast both parties once again for not hammering out their disagreements. LaHood earlier had urged House Republicans to send the Senate a clean bill stripped of the controversial labor element, to no avail.
A senior transportation official said that another failure to secure funding will hold up $130 million devoted to airport projects around the country.
“Members of Congress must work together," LaHood told HuffPost in a statement. "Communities could lose millions in federal funding for important airport improvement projects if Congress does not act quickly.”
This story has been updated with comment from Delta.
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