Chalk up another victim of partisan politics in Congress: the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency's last long-term authorization lapsed four years ago. Earlier this year, the Republican House and Democratic Senate each passed new bills but they have been unable to resolve major differences, and the last extension expired on Friday.
Consequently, the FAA has had to furlough thousands of employees and suspend airport modernization projects worth $2.5 billion.
The partial shutdown doesn't affect air traffic control. But the airlines are no longer collecting millions in federal excise taxes, which could force the government to try to collect it from them when the FAA's legal authority is reinstated.
What's at issue? A key dispute relates to Essential Air Service, which subsidizes rural airports. Enacted in 1978 to maintain flights to remote locations that would otherwise have lost them because of airline deregulation, Congress spotted its pork-barrel potential. Between 1997 and 2007, spending quadrupled to $109.4 million, and the number of destinations increased from 95 to 145 — about a fifth of all commercial airports in the country. Quite a few airports subsidized are within 100 miles of larger airports, according to the Government Accountability Office. EAS flights operated at 37 percent of capacity in 2008, and the federal government pays a median subsidy of about $100 per passenger.
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The House bill would have phased out EAS by 2014, except for Alaska and Hawaii. The Senate version would have funded it at the current level of $200 million per year, with an amendment ending service only to a few locations. The Senate's approach may have something to do with the fact that the bill's author, Democrat John D. Rockefeller III, hails from West Virginia, which has a number of small airports.
Accusing the Senate of dragging its feet, House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., put a $16.5 million EAS cut into the latest House version of the FAA extension, which Rockefeller rejected. Democratic senators accuse Mica of violating a long-standing practice of not adding policy changes to FAA extensions.
And here we are. A prolonged halt to needed airport modernization is not in the country's interest. But neither is the notoriously wasteful EAS. Congress should make it its business to reform that program.