With less than a week until the deadline to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, House Republicans appear poised to set aside their efforts to spin the agency’s air traffic control operations into a private nonprofit corporation, for now.
House leaders brought forward the 2017 Tax Relief and Airport and Airway Extension Act, introduced by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., on Monday night. The bill includes a six-month extension of the FAA’s operating authority, which expires Saturday, in addition to some health and Medicare program extensions and tax relief provisions for victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
But Democrats successfully blocked the measure, which required a two-thirds majority to pass Monday under suspension of the rules. They argued that Congress should approve a bill that renews the agency’s authority for a full year and without changing the air traffic control system’s governance and demanded the House vote to codify protections for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
“House Republicans are advancing a sprawling FAA extension package laden with completely unrelated and inadequate items,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement. “The FAA needs long-term certainty for controllers and other dedicated FAA employees, as well as the vital NextGen modernization effort. Unfortunately, Republicans’ radical and dangerous campaign to privatize the FAA has prevented action on the long-term reauthorization the FAA needs.”
The final vote Monday was 245-171. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., decried Democrats’ opposition in a statement.
“It is a sad say when House Democrats will—in the name of politics—vote against disaster relief and air traffic safety measures,” he said. “It’s shameful that politics will trump meaningful relief for families suffering from these devastating hurricanes. House Democrats are willing to shut down air traffic control to make a political point.”
Earlier in September, lawmakers had hoped to pass a sweeping reauthorization bill that included Shuster’s air traffic control privatization proposal, but the need to approve multiple disaster relief bills, as well as an increase to the federal debt ceiling, put that effort on hold.
Under Shuster’s original legislation, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2997), which got the support of President Trump and was approved by the House Transportation Committee in June, the FAA’s air traffic control functions would be spun off into a private, nonprofit corporation governed by industry stakeholders, employee unions and general aviation groups.
The nation’s 30,000 air traffic control employees would shift to the new nonprofit entity. Their existing collective bargaining agreements would be honored, and the corporation would establish a user fee on passengers to replace the taxes that currently fund ATC operations.
Shuster said on the House floor Monday that he expects the House will be able to move forward with his full reauthorization bill “in the next couple weeks.”
“We’ve approved numerous piecemeal reforms over the years to help FAA act more like a business, but these have not worked,” Shuster said. “For too long, we’ve been trying to manage the symptoms rather than finding the cure. But now we have that cure, and we’re making progress every day on this bill to bring long-term, overdue reform to the FAA.”
But even before the hurricanes hit, the privatization bill’s fate was an open question. In July, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee advanced an FAA reauthorization bill that did not include changes to air traffic control operations, and senators at the time noted that their chamber had not reached consensus on the issue.
“To be clear, I remain open minded about the idea of moving FAA’s ATC function into a not-for-profit nongovernmental body, but I also appreciate that sincerely held concerns exist,” said Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., in July. “So I hope and expect that we’ll consider this proposal more fully as this bill advances beyond committee.”
Earlier this month, the Transportation Department’s inspector general found that the FAA’s estimate of the benefits of the NextGen GPS-tracking system was “overly optimistic” and fails to take into account the potential for future delays in implementation.
But the Government Accountability Office’s analysis found that officials have improved their processes for upgrades from radar tracking, and said that a transition from the current ATC governance structure to a private corporation could present a number of new challenges.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said House Republicans’ insistence on including ATC privatization in the full reauthorization plan is wrongheaded, given the Senate’s inaction on the proposal.
“[Shuster] has stubbornly persisted in trying to privatize the most complex, efficient and safest air traffic control system in the world,” DeFazio said. “Sure, reforms are needed, and I have introduced a bill that would exempt [the FAA] from sequestration and budget shutdowns, and require reforms in its personnel and acquisition procedures. . . If we were voting today on a six-year extension without privatization and with some reforms, we would be the ones pressuring the Senate to get something done.”