The U.S. House of Representatives today moved to avert the ’s air traffic controller furloughs and closure of 149 contract towers with the passage of a bill to allow the agency to reallocate funds.
The bill mirrors legislation passed late April 25 by the U.S. Senate.
While the House debated the bill early April 26, a White House spokesman said President Barack Obama would sign the measure, seeing it as “good news” that Congress acted to avert growing problems with air traffic. The White House also called for lawmakers to undo all of the 2011 Budget Control Act’s sequestration cuts that caused the furloughs.
“The problem is, this is a Band-Aid solution,” the spokesman said.
The Obama Administration and most Democrats are pushing congressional Republicans to undo the sequestration cuts, which started in March.
“Before we start patting each other on the back for this bill, I think it’s important that we recognize that we’re not fixing the bigger problems that the sequester has created,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (Wash.), ranking Democrat on the House Aviation subcommittee.
Most Republicans lay blame with the administration and FAA officials for inconveniencing the public to make a political statement, or at least not trying to reduce the impact of sequestration on air traffic as much as Republicans think they could have. However, some Republican legislators acknowledged that sequestration is having undesired impacts and called on Congress to address other issues, as it did with the controller furloughs.
“This can happen all throughout the government,” said Rep. Blake Farenhold (R-Texas), a member of the Aviation subcommittee.
The FAA furloughs began April 21 and Congress is in recess next week, so the bill had to be passed by the weekend or be delayed until lawmakers return May 6.
The bill—S.853, the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 in the Senate, and H.R. 1765 in the House—explicitly allows U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to reallocate funds to prevent furloughs of essential employees at the FAA, including controllers. According to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a major sponsor of the bill, it would give the secretary authority to transfer up to $253 million by allowing a one-time allocation of unused funds from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP).
“To be clear, this is the discretionary portion of the program and in no way affects the entitlement funds airports are guaranteed to receive. The program has sufficient funding to support this effort,” Collins said on the Senate floor late April 25.
“Historically, AIP carryover balances range between $400-450 million and have not been below $300 million in the last decade. In fact, last year there was approximately $700 million of these carryover balances,” she said.
Collins added: “This bill should be recognized as a one-time solution in order to avert the serious national impacts that have resulted from the decisions made by the FAA.”
Since the bill is for fiscal 2013 only, Congress would still have to come up with a longer-term fix to FAA’s required cuts if sequestration continues into fiscal 2014.
Senators passed the bill by unanimous consent, meaning there was no opposition significant enough to force a formal vote, much less stop its passage. The House passed it 361-41.
While most industry reaction to the bill’s approval was supportive, Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) criticized the legislation. “It’s kind of unprecedented to take from a fund that is dedicated to capital improvement for airport,” says George Kelemen, the council’s senior vice president of government and political affairs. “The only silver lining is that this is a short-term fix for the remainder of the fiscal year.”
Even so, it will have an impact. “The money that will be taken from AIP to avoid controller furloughs and keep 149 contract towers open currently is unobligated, but in a typical year airports will apply for and receive approval to get most of that discretionary money before the end of the fiscal year for critical infrastructure projects,” Kelemen notes.