Congress moved fast Friday to ease delays at airports around the nation triggered by furloughs of air traffic controllers, as the House of Representatives approved by 361-41 a budget fix designed to avert more trouble.
The vote came only after a bruising debate over budget priorities, with many lawmakers wondering why Congress was so quick to help air travelers and not programs that affect schools, poverty or other areas. Despite the concerns, the bill passed easily and lawmakers headed home – often to the airports – to start a nine-day break.
The Senate had passed its version of the measure Thursday night.
The debate capped a week of protests from consumers and growing concern that federal budget cuts were crippling the nation’s air traffic system. On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration began asking its 13,000 air traffic controllers to take unpaid days off to comply with the sequester, the across-the-board, mandatory spending cuts that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed to address long-term federal budget deficits.
Hundreds of flights a day encountered delays attributed to the furloughs, snarling the nation’s commercial aviation system. Without a fix, the problem was expected only to get worse with the busy summer travel season approaching.
On Wednesday, the FAA reported 863 delays related to staff reductions, in addition to 2,132 delays it attributed to weather and other factors.
The bill permits the Transportation Department to transfer as much as $253 million from other parts of the agency so that furloughs and control tower closings could be averted. The money will come from airport improvement grants that haven’t been spent.
The solution essentially acknowledged what the Obama administration and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had been telling lawmakers all week: Under the law that Congress enacted more than a year and a half ago, the agency couldn’t simply move money between accounts to make up for the gap in payroll, which accounts for 70 percent of its budget.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said the airport tower in his district, at Concord, was the third busiest in the state. It’s also the airport that most NASCAR teams use. Without a tower, they’d have to move to Charlotte, increasing congestion there. Also, Concord serves as an overflow and emergency option for Charlotte.
The bill that passed Friday will give the Department of Transportation "plenty of money to restore those towers," Hudson said, adding that he didn’t believe that the department really needed help.
"It doesn’t make sense, so I think they were playing games,” the congressman said. “So what we’re doing is calling their bluff.”
Few if any delays were apparent at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Friday afternoon.
"I’m not personally seeing long lines” at security checkpoints, said Joy Goldman of Washington, who was waiting for a flight to Chicago. “But people I know have been pulling out of the gate and then they just sit on the tarmac for hours. . . . But that’s not my experience, though it won’t surprise me if we board the plane and sit."
Few seemed happy with the last-minute deal. During a fiery House debate Friday, Republicans charged that Democrats were playing games.
“This is no way to run a government,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House appropriations transportation subcommittee. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called the problem “President Obama’s needless furlough.”
Democrats were upset that only the FAA was being helped. “There are other agencies that have to make their cuts and are in a crisis themselves,” said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., the transportation panel’s top Democrat.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., opposed the measure, reading a long list of others who are affected by the automatic spending cuts. “Nothing in here for them,” he repeated over and over. “We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed the Democrats’ concerns.
“It would be a welcome development if members of Congress, the Republicans who celebrated the sequester as a political victory . . . would show even a portion of the concern they showed about these real problems with flight delays for the families whose children have been kicked off of Head Start,” he said. “The point of the sequester (was) that it was mindless. It was written . . . by and agreed to by both parties so that it would never become law, because it would have these effects. It was designed to be terrible and onerous."
But with public pressure growing – and lawmakers eager to get home for the recess – support became overwhelming, and Carney said Obama would sign the bill.
The last-minute deal, crafted Thursday, was somewhat surprising because Republicans had been railing all week that the Obama administration had created a false crisis.
“Does anyone out there believe a federal government bureaucracy can’t find this level of savings without affecting the American people? Well, I don’t,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind. “Rather than furloughing air traffic controllers to make a political point, the FAA should cut wasteful and unnecessary spending.”
Huerta told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency had cut spending on travel, training and information technology, but that to plug an expected $637 million hole through Sept. 30 it had to look at payroll.
“In order to hit the target we have to hit, we don’t really have any choice,” Huerta said.
Top Republicans insisted otherwise, and some airline officials joined the chorus.
"We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations," United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said Thursday in a conference call.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate appropriations subcommittee on transportation, charged earlier this week that the airport delays were a “manufactured crisis.”
“It’s unfortunate that these irresponsible cuts led to widespread delays to the air transportation system,” she said.
But by Friday, Collins was one of the key players in finding a solution.
After meeting with top transportation officials Thursday morning, she agreed to the steps that led to Friday’s result. After all, Collins said, “This agreement will help avoid onerous delays for the traveling public and keep people working.”