For Frederick tower, a sorry legislative story
May 9, 2013
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  • In the military there is a phrase unfit for publication in a family newspaper to describe how Congress has handled the sequester-induced furlough of air traffic controllers and the planned closure of small contract towers like the one at Frederick Municipal Airport.

    Opened a year ago, the gleaming new federally funded tower in Frederick was a symbol of the federal government’s commitment to providing a stimulus to the growth of regional general aviation, and a way to help the local economy help itself.

    Less than a year later, it has become a symbol of partisan gridlock, arrogance, stupidity and political incompetence of such historic depths that it would be amusing political theater if it were not such a galling example of politicians turning their usual “win-win” cliche into “lose-lose.”

    The airport tower’s fate was tied to $85 billion in automatic sequester cuts that went into effect because Congress couldn’t compromise enough to use a scalpel instead of a chain saw on the bloated federal budget.

    The Frederick tower — staffed by seven contract air traffic controllers, including five military veterans — was slated for closure on June 15, along with 148 other small airports towers across the nation, including four more in Maryland.

    But after the cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration that furloughed air-traffic controllers at large airports began causing delays for members of Congress, their staffs and, most importantly, their constituents who vote, the august body was able to quickly compromise and act decisively, demonstrating that anything is possible if the right ox is gored.

    But even after a bill was approved — passed so fast it had a key typo — giving the FAA the discretion to move funds around to keep the controllers on the job, there still was confusion and a conspicuous lack of communication over what it would mean to the small airports.

    Senators, congressmen, aides, city officials and airport managers were left in a holding pattern. Finally, Ray Lahood, the often-outspoken secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, offered assurances to Maryland’s congressional members that the towers at the five targeted small airports in the state would remain open through the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.

    That came as good news to the local airports — assuming the outgoing Lahood’s department lives up to the pledge, and Congress doesn’t muck it up again.

    Although the Frederick Airport operated safely for years without the benefit of air traffic controllers, the idea was that the newly manned tower would be a beacon for the growth of a regional operation. Such airports generally draw more corporate aviation business, while generating new airport support services, creating jobs for the local economy and tax revenue for area governments.

    Now the question becomes what happens on Sept. 30? Do we start this ridiculous process all over again? Will the FAA face further cuts that force it to repeat its sequester decisions?

    In a joint statement after getting a pledge from Lahood that the small airport towers would be manned, Maryland’s U.S. sens. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore and Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville continued to blast the sequester cuts as wrong-headed.

    “The crisis created by furloughing air traffic controllers and the plan to close the nation’s federal ATC contract towers only served to highlight the fact that sequester is not good policy,” the senators said.

    “It’s destructive to our economy, reducing employment when we should be stimulating it, and damaging priorities that are important to the American people. … Sequester is a meat-ax approach with mindless cuts that will continue to reverberate throughout our economy.”

    As Congress’ approval rating hovers at a historically low 17 percent, one wonders if there is any light at the end of this tunnel of horrors. Thoughtful voters in both parties — as well as the growing legion of disgusted independents — keep shaking their heads, asking why can’t these so-called lawmakers just make a deal?

    But there might be a small glimmer of hope when you hear emerging congressional leaders like U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Dist. 6) call on Democrats to compromise with Republicans, especially on economic issues.

    Delaney, a freshman class president and banker, received a standing ovation on April 27 at the Western Maryland Democratic Summit when he urged fellow Democrats to keep to the high ground on social issues but to avoid ideology when trying to set economic policy.

    Sounding eminently reasonable, he said the nation’s debt is too high, and the free market must be allowed to operate without overregulation.

    Some of his colleagues might have been mumbling “Blue Dog Democrat” under their breath while they were applauding, but let’s hope somebody was listening on the other side of the aisle. What a novel idea; politicians that can actually see both sides of an argument — and get something done.