FAA Revamp Hits Turbulence

Norman Y. Mineta, a former Democratic House Member from California, was upbeat as he recently outlined his blue-ribbon panel's sweeping proposals to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration. As chairman of the 21-member, congressionally created National Civil Aviation Review Commission, Mineta stressed that unlike several other efforts since 1993 to tackle the FAA's budget and organizational problems, his panel had a consensus package.

Earlier studies that reached similar conclusions have been gathering dust. But Mineta is confident that his commission's recommendations--which were praised by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater--have a far better shot at serving as the basis for legislation next year, when Congress is slated to consider reauthorization of the FAA.

The commission would free the agency from discretionary budget limits by tying its spending directly to its revenues. It also would put the air traffic system in the hands of a separate "performance-based organization" overseen by a private-sector board of directors. And the aviation industry would be given greater say in developing a game plan to improve safety. Without such changes, the panel warned, the country risks severe gridlock in the skies that will not only have devastating economic consequences, but also could dramatically increase the chance of air accidents.

Despite such huge stakes, even Mineta, a former chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, knows his task is formidable. Making such fundamental changes to a federal agency will be a hard sell in Congress, where committees jealously guard their turf and entrenched bureaucratic ways.

Budget hawks are among those skeptical of a separate FAA funding scheme. Only half-jokingly, Mineta recounted that when he recently left the office of Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, the Budget Committee chairman, "I might as well have been [undergoing] a police frisk--you know, when they tell you to stand up against the wall and spread your arms and legs. Boy, he was tough."

If the current airline taxes were chucked and replaced with user fees, the tax-writing House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees would lose jurisdiction, a veteran House aide said. The Appropriations Committees also would be shut out, because funds from user fees would go directly to the FAA.

"It is going to be a fight. It is so much easier to maintain the status quo," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "The fight will be whether we can convince especially the Finance Committee to view this very seriously."

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., noted that another turf war is likely to erupt within the Clinton Administration. "The Department of Transportation, of course, wants the FAA under its wing," he said. "And the FAA likes the degree of control it has over the [air traffic] system at the present time, and may not be anxious to give it up." Gorton said elements of the aviation community are likely to wage "great battles" over who comes up with the money if the FAA were to be even partly weaned from its federal patron.

Much posturing already was evident within days of the study's release. Mineta and the other commission members face a struggle to keep their report out of the dustbin that others before it have fallen into.

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