Congress does not just make a hash of big things like debt-ceiling legislation; it fumbles the small things, too.
Last week, lawmakers failed to renew the operating authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, which they have renewed 20 times since 2007. Although air traffic controllers and safety personnel remain on the job, much of the agency’s other work has been grounded, primarily construction projects all over the country brought to a halt by stop-work orders.
About $2.5 billion in airport construction grants cannot be processed because those who do the work are among 4,000 furloughed – 217 in Washington – until Congress acts. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of construction workers are home as well. For all the talk about “job-killing” laws, this non-legislation is having the same effect.
If it were legislation, the working title might be The Airline Relief Act. Air travelers pay a 7.5 percent excise tax on every ticket, with the money dedicated to airport improvements. Revenues average about $30 million per day. But without reauthorization, the tax is not being collected – by the U.S. government. The airlines have not lowered fares to reflect the absence of the tax; they are pocketing the money themselves.
Fortunately, reconstruction of the main Spokane International Airport runway is not among the projects affected. There is enough grant money in hand to fund work through August. A $3.3 million grant was expected to complete the work.
If that grant is delayed by the congressional standoff, airport officials have already notified the air carriers it will increase landing fees to replace the grant, with the funds to be returned if or when the federal money comes through.
But officials are concerned the lapsed excise tax could be in play depending on how broadly the “no new taxes” dogma is applied. A lower tax will reduce the number of airport projects undertaken each year. Spokane has been a significant beneficiary of the aviation trust fund money in the last few years.
All this because the House and Senate are feuding over separate versions of the reauthorization legislation. The Democrats in the Senate have passed a version that will make it somewhat easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize. In spite, the House Republicans would suspend subsidies to several rural airports in states with Democratic senators, Montana among them.
With Delta Airlines, for one, threatening to cut service to many smaller communities, the subsidy policy does need revisiting. It and the Senate’s unionization provision should be set aside in favor of a clean bill that will get airport construction restarted.
Only the airlines benefit from this standoff.