WASHINGTON – For more than four years, Congress has attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a long-term commercial aviation funding bill to modernize airports and the national’s air traffic control system.
Two sticking points this year in reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are an extension of the $200 million Essential Air Service program and a National Mediation Board ruling affecting representation votes under the Railway Labor Act.
The Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial air service to some 150 rural communities that, otherwise, would lose their air service because it is unprofitable — is provided primarily by regional airlines that employ UTU-represented pilots and flight attendants.
The NMB rule-change scrapped a 75-year curiousity of counting those who chose not to vote as having voted “no” for union representation. The new rule comported with every other democratic election — whether it be for the local PTA or for members of Congres — counting only those ballots actually cast in determining whether employees wish to be represented by a labor union.
However, conservative Republican leaders, such as House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), want to scrap subsidies that assure air service to rural areas and overturn, through legislation, the NMB ruling.
While the Republican-controlled House of Representatives remains opposed to the Essential Air Service subsidies and the modernization of the rep-vote rule by the NMB, the Democratic-controlled Senate has pushed back. With no agreement, lawmakers have passed a series of short-term funding extensions that keep the nation’s commercial aviation network running while they continue to lock horns over the subsidy and vote-rule issue. As a result, long-term funding for airport and safety improvements is in liimbo.
The latest of 22 short-term extensions expires Jan. 31, and Mica is threatening to allow another partial shutdown of the system as occurred earlier this year when the House and Senate failed to agree, for a few days, on even another short-term extension.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) remain committeed to not sacrificing the Essential Air Service program or allowing a congressional rollback of the NMB rule. President Obama has promised to veto any bill that does not preserve the Essential Air program and leave untouched the NMB ruling.
This congressional battle, as with so many other issues before Congress, has become, from Greek mythology, a Sisyphean struggle – a reference to King Sisyphus punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and having to repeat this through eternity.