Sequester, Flight Delays Breed Confusion

Posted April 24, 2013 at 4:48pm

With Congress and the flying public up in arms over airline delays caused by Federal Aviation Administration furloughs, lawmakers seem somehow caught off guard by the extent of the problem caused by the sequester.

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller said he hoped to know whether legislation would be needed to provide an actual fix to the FAA furlough issue after a Wednesday meeting with members of the administration.

“This wasn’t meant to come along because we were meant to be mature enough to work out a bargain so that all of this would go away,” the West Virginia Democrat said of the sequester, which began in March following a series of failures to craft a broader bipartisan budget deal.

Rockefeller told reporters Tuesday that even within the Senate Democratic Conference, not all senators were aware of the duration of the aviation cutbacks under the sequester. Some seemed to think the problems would go away at the start of the next fiscal year, on Oct. 1. But the automatic across-the-board spending cuts are set to be in place for 10 years if Congress does not act to reverse them in some way.

Lawmakers’ confusion over the issue has been on full display this week, as they grapple with the fallout from forced furloughs of air traffic controllers. Indeed, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has become the main target of criticism from both parties over the past few days, as air travel delays mount.

At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday morning, Chairman Harold Rogers blasted the FAA for not providing sufficient information about the looming cuts.

“Not a word, not a breath. You didn’t forewarn us that this was coming,” the Kentucky Republican said. “You didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it. You didn’t inform the Congress of this sequester impact and what you plan to do about it. In fact, the entire administration has done the same thing.”

However, Congress did receive formal warning from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as early as February. From the White House briefing room, LaHood said he was trying to “wake up” Republicans to the fact that more than 100 regional airport towers would close and passengers would see delays at major airports once furloughs took effect.

Earlier that month, LaHood also wrote a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., noting that significant furloughs would be applied to safety workers and air traffic controllers. Some lawmakers actually criticized administration officials for fear-mongering about the potential consequences of the budget sequester at the time warnings such as LaHood’s were made.

Huerta sought to remind Rogers of those warnings Wednesday.

“Mr. Chairman, we’ve been talking about this since February. We’ve talked about our need to reduce our contract expenditures and thereby to withdraw federal funding and close federal contract towers — at that time,” he said. “We also talked about the need to furlough our employees and we said that that would lead to significant delays up to 90 minutes at major hub facilities.”

“The Congress can’t operate like that. This imperial attitude on the part of the administration — and you’re the most recent example of that imperialism — is disgusting,” an enraged Rogers said.

Rockefeller, who helped push through a much-delayed FAA reauthorization last year, was among those watching the House Appropriations hearing.

“He just kind of plastered everybody up against the wall, which is fine,” Rockefeller said of Rogers, but the Senate chairman took a somewhat more conciliatory tone toward the FAA in advance of a meeting with LaHood and Huerta that he and Commerce ranking Republican John Thune of South Dakota were due to attend.

“People think that there’s so much that the FAA can do,” Rockefeller said. “It’s not like other agencies that have a lot of … slush funds here and slush funds there.”

There’s been no shortage of senators rushing to float ideas for how to offset the cuts required by the sequester, at least as it goes to reducing the airport delays.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., suggested allowing LaHood to use money from other Transportation Department accounts to pay for the FAA operations. Huerta told House appropriators Wednesday that such authority does not currently exist.

Some of the offerings may be little more than political exercises, however.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has suggested using increased revenue from ending a tax preference program for corporate jets to stop the FAA furloughs.

“Instead of protecting tax breaks for wealthy corporate jet owners who don’t need them, we should be keeping commercial air travel fully operational for middle class families and small businesses,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., proposed using budget savings from money not being spent on foreign wars to forestall the sequester overall, but that suggestion faced objections. GOP senators were quick to decry it as a budget gimmick, because no one expects to spend the money in Afghanistan anyway.