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Michael Huerta Spars With Congress Over FAA Furloughs, Flight Delays

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WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers who called the Federal Aviation Administration on the carpet over its budget-related furloughs Wednesday warned that Congress likely would do nothing to end sequestration, the much-maligned across-the-board spending cuts affecting the agency.

"As a word to the wise ... we assumed this thing wasn't going to happen and it did," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "I'd be very careful about assuming that it would all go away, because I'm not at all convinced that it will."

"I would join Congressman Cole to say that probably sequestration is going to continue into 2014, and you all should be prepared for it," added Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.).

The admission came as members of the House Appropriations Committee second-guessed how FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was dealing with sequestration, the congressionally mandated reductions in spending that for the FAA total $637 million.

Many members, including committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), accused Huerta of springing recent furloughs of air traffic controllers on Congress, the airlines and the public.

"You didn't inform the Congress of this sequester impact, and what you planned to do about it," Rogers charged. "In fact, the entire administration has done the same thing. ... This imperial attitude on the part of the administration -- and you're the most recent example of that imperialism -- is disgusting."

Huerta noted, however, that months ago, he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had warned Congress of possible FAA furloughs due to sequestration.

"We've been talking about this since February," Huerta said, noting that an earlier briefing included the likelihood of closing air control towers and furloughs of controllers. He added that the only news regarding the furloughs came now that "we are at the place were we actually have to take the actions in order to achieve the savings."

On Tuesday, airports across the country saw more than 1,025 delays that were "attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough," according to an FAA statement. "There were more than 975 additional delays as a result of weather and other factors," the agency said.

As evidence the FAA has tried to preserve staffing levels as much as possible, Huerta noted the agency's labor savings amounted to about $224 million -- or about a third of its total spending reductions -- even though personnel costs account for 70 percent of its budget.

He also answered questions about why the FAA didn't shift money from elsewhere to avoid impacts on air travel, pointing out that the law mandating the cuts, the Budget Control Act of 2011, forbids such transfers.

While legislators continued to blast the administration for inflicting unnecessary pain on Americans, Rogers did admit that Congress' original intent regarding sequestration was to make the cuts painful, since the legislation was created as a tool to force lawmakers to come up with something better. Still, Rogers berated Huerta for not offering more specific guidance to airlines sooner.

Huerta countered that airlines were warned about 10 percent cuts in FAA staffing. "We told them that they should expect significant impacts at major hub facilities," Huerta said.

Rogers was not satisfied, however.

"Well la-ti-da, everyone knew that," he said. "That's what sequester is all about."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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