The FAA Funding Standoff: Hostage-Taking We Can Believe In

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I’ve repeatedly criticized Republicans for holding the global economy hostage to try to force President Obama to adopt their right-wing fiscal agenda. For consistency’s sake, I suppose I should criticize Republican Congressman John Mica for holding a routine extension of the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding hostage to try to insert some union-bashing language.

But I have to admit, I like Mica’s approach to hostage-taking.  He’s passed an FAA extension that specifically omits ludicrous subsidies for rural airports in Ely, Nev., Morgantown, W. Va., and Glendive, Mont. Which just happen to be located in the home states of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. Who just happen to be the three Democrats he’s been fighting with over the FAA.

The seven-year-old legislation funding the FAA has been extended 20 times without incident, and this would have been the 21st if Republicans hadn’t gotten upset about a National Mediation Board ruling that made it easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize. In April, the Republican-controlled House passed a new long-term funding bill for the FAA that included a provision overturning the Board’s ruling. Senate Democrats had passed their own FAA bill in February, but the labor measure became a sticking point—not only for a long-term bill, but for a short-term extension to keep the agency going during negotiations.

The current reauthorization expires at midnight on Friday. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has warned that if an extension doesn’t pass before then, 4,000 FAA employees will be furloughed–safety inspectors and air-traffic controllers would be exempt–and a $2.5 billion airport improvement program will be shut down. So Mica finally agreed to an extension at current funding levels, without the labor rider, but with two no-brainer reforms to the “Essential Air Service” program that subsidizes small rural airports. One would limit the subsidies to airports located at least 90 miles from a medium-sized airport, and the other would cap the subsidies at $1,000 per passenger. Mica said the reforms would eliminate 13 airports from the program, saving $16.6 million a year.

And if some of those airports happen to be pork for influential Democratic Senators—Ely’s airport rakes in subsidies worth $3,720 per passenger—well, Mica said he wanted to “send the Senate a message that we want this finally resolved.” Rockefeller fired back a letter full of senatorial screw-you-speak: “deeply puzzled,” “surprise maneuver,” “troubling and problematic,” and so on. Rockefeller also tried to drive a wedge between Mica and House Speaker John Boehner, noting that “it is my understanding that you have asserted to others that you had no role in developing this extension, claiming that it was a leadership decision.”

Rockefeller is clearly outraged at Mica’s efforts to embarrass him. But those efforts wouldn’t succeed if the Essential Air Service program—note the typically Orwellian name—weren’t embarrassing. Why should the federal government be in the business of subsidizing rural airports with no passengers? Like so many of our efforts to prop up unsustainable rural communities—with broadband subsidies, agricultural subsidies, inefficient post offices and other perks justified in the name of heartland values—it’s environmentally destructive and economically ridiculous. If it took a hostage drama to highlight that, well, at least this one isn’t imperiling the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.