Need ‘compromise’ or FAA won’t function, Transportation secretary says

The debt-ceiling crisis has knocked off the front pages a government situation that's just as messed up and mirrors the broader stalemate in Washington. The Federal Aviation Administration has been in partial shutdown for almost a week since lawmakers failed to extend its funding last Friday. It's becoming a familiar problem. Lawmakers seem unable to compromise.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made an unusual appearance at the White House briefing on Thursday to make that case. Lawmakers "need to come back to the negotiating table [so that] construction projects can start again, so our 4,000 FAA employees, who were without a paycheck since last Saturday, can come back to work. These construction projects can start again. Our friends and neighbors can go back to work."

LaHood is popular in Washington. Having served seven terms in the House as a Republican representative from Illinois, he was a go-to guy for journalists seeking plain explanations about what was happening in Congress. His role hasn't changed that much since he joined the Obama administration. "This is a time that I think most of us that have watched politics have never seen before, because there are people in Congress who don't like the word 'compromise,' who don't believe in it," he said.

On the FAA, LaHood said (perhaps optimistically) that members could reach agreement on some of the sticking points that are holding up a reauthorization bill. In the interim, he pleaded for Congress to at least pass a stopgap funding measure to allow research and engineering work, which has been halted, to continue. "We have friends and neighbors all over the country that are out of work during the construction season; they ought to go back to work. They shouldn't be held hostage."

The standoff is likely to continue until the debt-ceiling crisis reaches its denouement, according to Senate leaders.

Congress has temporarily extended FAA's funding 20 times since the law expired in 2007. Congress has stalled on the 21st extension because the House version of the bill included cutbacks to rural airport subsidies. Senate leaders cried foul, saying that stopgap bills are no place for policy debates. Only once since 2007 have lawmakers added policy-related provisions to the FAA extensions. After the Colgan Flight 3407 accident in 2009 in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA extension that Congress passed the following year included pilot-safety provisions.

The current debate about rural airport aid has devolved into a shouting match on Capitol Hill, with Republicans decrying large subsidies for just a few airports and Democrats arguing that such debates are more appropriate for a conference committee. LaHood is right that the issue probably can be worked out in the context of a friendly negotiation between the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth statements over the past few days have soured the normally cordial relationship between the transportation chiefs in both chambers.

On the broader FAA reauthorization proposal, lawmakers are struggling with labor-related language that would make it more difficult for rail and aviation workers to unionize. LaHood said on Thursday that he believes common ground can be found, but he may be relying on his typical good humor in making that assumption. Republicans have held firm in their belief that the National Mediation Board was in the wrong last year when it overturned a decades-old rule that counted nonvoting employees as a "no" during unionization elections. Democrats, and a few moderate Republicans, have said that the rule should have been overturned a long time ago. It's difficult to see how they meet in the middle. As of yet, they haven't been given the chance.

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