White House threatens to veto FAA bill over privatization language

The White House is threatening to veto the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill if it includes language that blocks the agency from outsourcing air traffic control jobs.

Despite repeated statements that it has no plans to outsource air traffic controllers, the Bush administration is resisting a measure in the House version of the FAA bill, H.R. 2115, which would prohibit outsourcing. In a statement issued Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget said the outsourcing provision, sponsored by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. could derail the $58 billion reauthorization bill.

"If the final legislation includes provisions that would inappropriately prohibit the conversion of FAA facilities or functions from the federal government to the private sector, the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill," said OMB.

The House passed the bill, which included the Oberstar measure, by a vote of 418 to 8 on Wednesday. Oberstar's provision is Section 434 of the bill.

Trent Duffy, an OMB spokesman, said Bush officials are opposed to any legislation that would exempt certain groups of employees from its competitive sourcing initiative, which seeks to put 425,000 federal jobs up for competition from private firms.

"There's a principle that once you permit any group to be blocked from being part of competitive sourcing, that would open the floodgates," he said. Congress should allow agencies to make their own determination of what jobs are eligible for competitive sourcing, he added.

FAA officials have said that air traffic controllers are not candidates for competitive sourcing. The agency included air traffic controllers in its most recent inventory of "commercial" jobs, required under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act, but used a clause in the law to exempt controllers from possible outsourcing. In a Dec. 19 letter to air traffic employees, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stressed that controllers "will not be contracted out."

Given these statements, backers of the Oberstar measure were surprised to see the administration threaten a veto over his provision. "I don't understand why they would be willing to veto a $58 billion bill over just that language," said James Morhard, Democratic spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "This suggests that they really are planning substantial changes to the air traffic system that they don't want us to forestall," he said.

"Those concerns are unfounded," replied OMB's Duffy. "These [positions] are commercial and exempt [from possible competition] and everyone knows that so there is no need for additional legislative protections," he said.

OMB's statement builds on a May 20 letter from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to Alaska Republican Don Young, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in which Mineta expressed concern with the Oberstar provision. Mineta also protested separate legislation sponsored by Oberstar, H.R. 1711, that would protect all air traffic control jobs from job competitions. Oberstar's bill would stop an ongoing job competition at the FAA that involves 2,700 flight service specialists.

"The bottom line is that the legislation would stop this study-a study that encourages FAA managers and the FAA workforce to look for innovative ways to provide higher quality services at less cost," wrote Mineta. Mineta added that he would recommend a veto of the FAA reauthorization legislation if lawmakers tried to add language halting the flight service specialist competition to that bill. The FAA spends more than $400 million on flight service operations each year.

Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a Los-Angeles based think tank, said some Bush officials remain interested in turning air traffic control operations over to a nonprofit entity, or creating a government corporation supported by user fees to handle the work. The Oberstar provision would bar these options, including the government corporation model, which was supported by the Clinton administration, according to Poole.

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said Congress would fight any effort to privatize air traffic control. "It's a bipartisan issue and we are confident members on both sides of the aisle understand the safety implications of what is being discussed," he said.

Oberstar's provision would not affect the existing contract tower program, under which contractors staff 209 low-activity air traffic control towers.

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