Deal ending FAA standoff papers over deeper wounds

It didn't take long for lawmakers to figure out that 74,000 people out of work due to congressional inaction just won't fly with the public.

But they have succeeded in doing the bare minimum to rectify the situation.

The 12-day-old partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, brought on by an unresolved dispute between House and Senate transportation chiefs, escalated to crisis proportions earlier this week when lawmakers went home without fixing it. The standoff has cost the Treasury some $200 million per week, and billions more in grant money is at risk if FAA workers aren't allowed to do their jobs by simply doling out the money.

After a lot of yelling on both sides, lawmakers did manage on Thursday to fix it, for now. But all the underlying disagreements still remain.

The last-minute deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Obama administration, and Senate Republicans is the quintessential example of the much-hated and much-used technique of kicking the can down the road. The Senate will pass a bill that Democrats find objectionable on its face in exchange for a promise from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to waive those objectionable provisions once it is signed into law. Reid has promised Republicans that he will include those same objectionable provisions (cuts to rural airports) in legislation that the Senate will take up in September.

It's going to be a fun month. The FAA stopgap expires on September 16, which means lawmakers are going to have to work fast to come up with a way to deal with the unresolved issues-rural airport subsidies, labor, long distance slots at Reagan National Airport, and overall funding levels. (Somewhere in that time, they're going to need to take time out to commemorate September 11.)

The fiscal year will end on September 30, which means that funding for the highway trust fund, another major transportation hurdle, will need to be extended. Passing such an extension for highway funding "is going to be impossible as long as it involves this kind of messaging," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a moderate Republican who has been in the middle of the negotiations between the House, Senate, and White House to resolve the FAA impasse.

LaTourette is right that the messaging has gotten pretty bad. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., accused the House Republicans of "bullying" because they passed an FAA extension that he didn't like. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., accused Senate Democrats of protecting "pork programs" in the name of rural airports and "blaming everybody else."

The public also is disgusted, particularly after watching the same kind of finger-pointing during the debt ceiling crisis. A recent Pew Research poll found that public routinely uses terms like "ridiculous, disgusting, stupid, and frustrating" to describe Congress. Why, demanded callers to C-SPAN's Washington Journal on Wednesday, can't members of Congress get past their petty disputes and get people back to work?

LaTourette is friends with LaHood, a similarly affable and moderate Republican who served with LaTourette in the House. They both have found themselves opposing more conservative House GOP leaders on several issues. Yet LaTourette said he was offended by the "disgusting" display from LaHood earlier this week when he blamed House Republicans for "going on vacation" without finishing the FAA bill. In fact, LaTourette pointed out, the House had finished its FAA bill. The only problem was that the Senate didn't like it.

In the end, it was the leaders-LaHood, Reid, and House Speaker John Boehner-who made significant steps away from the accusations to actually broker a deal, even if it is no more than a Band-Aid.

LaHood relied on his deep roots in the House, and his friendship with LaTourette and moderate Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., to help convince Boehner that he needed to pay attention to the FAA dispute even though the debt ceiling crisis was still being resolved. Boehner appointed a top aide to deal with the situation and agreed to seek consent from the House to pass whatever the Senate sent over. (That proved to be unnecessary, but Boehner's offer belies the accusation that House leaders were refusing to budge.)

Reid, for his part, agreed to cuts to an airport in his own state for the sake of resolving the broader FAA dispute. Reid's patience went far beyond that, however. When Reid said he would accept a House bill that had not been negotiated with his own Senate members, he also was tacitly agreeing to accept a hard-line tactic-adjournment-that has often been used by the House to push the Senate to act on must-pass legislation. He simply realized that the country couldn't wait for six weeks leaving thousands of people unemployed and billions of dollars on the table.

The hard feelings won't be papered over so easily. After the deal was announced Rockefeller again accused House Republicans of continuing to "hold the entire aviation system hostage." LaTourette said, "This is not a House responsibility."

The public may want to pose the question to each of them: Whose responsibility is it?

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