The unfinished debate over highway funding in Congress is likely to ground hopes for passing a new funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA bill, which includes funding for air traffic controllers, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. But Congress is expected to return its focus on highways upon returning to Washington next month, because lawmakers punted debate on a long-term surface transportation-funding bill into October before leaving for their August recess.
Air travel advocates are worried that the twin cliffs will mean aviation will get the short end of the stick when lawmakers return to Washington.
“It seems things are trending in that direction,” Erik Hansen, U.S. Travel Association senior director of domestic policy, told The Hill on Tuesday, when asked if the prolonged highway funding debate means the FAA is heading for a short-term extension.
“The surface bill seems to be sucking all of the oxygen out of the room and that could more delays for aviation,” Hansen continued. “There’s a packed floor schedule [in the fall], and getting a bill through committees and both chambers and through a conference could be difficult.”
The FAA funding deadline has flown under the radar for most of the year as lawmakers have focused on the highway funding measure, which initially had a May 31 deadline. The new cutoff point, established by a patch passed by Congress last week, is Oct. 29. Lawmakers have pledged to dive back into the highway funding debate in September.
Already, there are rumors that a House markup scheduled to consider the FAA bill in September will be replaced with a hearing on a multiyear highway bill.
Complicating matters further is a push from House Republicans to privatize some functions of air traffic control. The effort has riled unions.
Hansen said Tuesday that the privatization push will be difficult lift for GOP leaders during a month-long sprint that will ensue after Congress returns to Washington on Sept. 8.
“We already heard comments from [House Transportation Committee] Ranking Member [Peter] DeFazio [D-Ore.] that there is going to have to be some type of extension,” he said. “The question is, how long?”
The FAA has been at the center of budget battles in Washington before. The agency’s last funding measure, in 2012, was passed following a string of more than 20 temporary extensions that resulted in a partial shutdown of the agency in 2011.
The FAA’s funding was also cut in the 2013 sequester, resulting in air traffic controller furloughs and flight delays before Congress passed a quick fix to restore the spending.
Aviation industry groups in Washington are focused now on avoiding those kinds of standoffs, even if they have to accept at least one more temporary extension while Congress finishes off the highway bill.
“Both the House and Senate understand how critical aviation is to the economy and jobs, and we are committed to working collaboratively with Congress to deliver an FAA bill that our industry needs and our customers deserve,” the group that lobbies for airlines, Airlines for America, said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.
The American Association of Airport Executives said it is important for Congress to avoid getting stuck in a cycle of repeated aviation funding extensions, however.
“With the memory of 23 short-term extensions during the last reauthorization cycle still fresh in mind, it’s clear that Congress needs to move swiftly to provide long-term certainty and avoid another series of temporary patches that result in disruptions to the programs of the FAA, missed construction seasons in parts of the country, and lost jobs,” the group said in a statement.
U.S. Travel’s Hansen said the aviation industry has an advantage because it does not have the kind of funding crunch that has marked the highway debate as lawmakers have tried fervently to avoid raising gas taxes.
“The difficulty on the surface side is that you have to come up with pay-fors each time,” he said. “You don’t have that on the aviation side.”
But Hansen said the privatization effort is a sticky-enough issue that it could result in the same type of gridlock that has marked the highway funding debate.
“There’s a packed agenda, a packed floor and building consensus takes time, especially on major issues like air traffic control reform,” he said.