FAA reauthorization bill to move without labor agreement

Committee Democrats may offer an amendment that would support union's position to retroactively require binding arbitration.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is marking up a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill even though the agency and the air traffic controllers union have not reached an accord in contract talks.

Top Democrats and Republicans on the committee have agreed not to include in the bill language requiring FAA and the union to revive failed talks last year over wages and other issues, Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., said.

But committee Democrats will offer an amendment that would support the union's position to retroactively require binding arbitration, which would have the effect of reopening last year's discussions, Mica said. The White House has threatened to veto that retroactive language and Mica said he expects Congress would sustain that veto.

The committee's bill was not yet introduced at presstime and a spokeswoman for Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., declined to comment.

Committee discussions over how to introduce a bipartisan measure and then move it through a markup -- along with renewed talks this month between the FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association -- had initially threatened to delay Thursday's consideration of the reauthorization bill until after the Independence Day recess.

The addition of the reauthorization bill to the agenda of Thursday's markup -- which will include other measures as well -- was not announced until Wednesday afternoon.

When talks broke down with NATCA in April 2006, FAA sent Congress its final offer to the union. FAA interpreted language in the 1996 FAA authorization bill as giving the agency the right to then begin implementing that final offer in June last year unless Congress acted within 60 days.

A Republican-controlled Congress did not act within those two months. FAA and NATCA resumed contract talks for the past 10 days under the urging of committee leaders, but that also failed to resolve their differences.

Mica, who backs FAA in the talks, suggested Wednesday he may not try to stand in the way of moving the bill through committee Thursday but he has "made no commitments beyond markup on what I'm going to do if they add the NATCA contract reach-back."

Mica said the committee is "going to continue to put pressure on [FAA and NATCA] to settle their differences rather than having a food fight over this issue on the Hill."

Oberstar and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., argued in a letter in March to Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and House Democratic leaders that FAA's "interpretation of the law gives it an inherent, unfair advantage to impose its contract terms on employees." Further, "such a one-sided process has been an impediment to good faith negotiations that could have led to a voluntary contract."

FAA officials have countered that the agency would be the only taxpayer-funded federal entity other than the U. S. Postal Service to have to go to binding arbitration. The Democrats' effort also would remove budgetary control from Congress and the executive branch and give it to an unelected arbitrator, FAA has contended.

The committee's bill Thursday also will not include aviation user fees backed by the Bush administration but would raise from $4.50 to a maximum of $7 the fee per flight segment an airport can charge passengers, Mica said.

A four-year Senate Commerce Committee FAA reauthorization bill would impose a new $25 per flight user fee. The House Ways and Means Committee has yet to look at aviation excise taxes while the Senate Finance Committee is tentatively set to do so July 12.