A House Republican plan to place the nation’s air traffic control system in private hands is closer than ever to becoming reality — but not even President Donald Trump’s outspoken support has cleared away all the obstacles.
A month after Trump offered his public support in a White House speech, the proposal to split up the Federal Aviation Administration still faces opposition from rural interests, small-plane owners and key Republicans in Congress, where the to-do list for returning lawmakers is piled high with big tasks like repealing Obamacare and rewriting the tax code.
One crucial lawmaker says he’s not even sure how strongly Trump supports the proposal, which would represent the most dramatic overhaul of U.S. aviation in a century.
“Well, you know, the president — it’s kind of funny because he hasn’t mentioned that to me, and I’m the one that he would mention it to, and I’ve been around him a lot,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who as a pilot, staunch conservative and advocate for rural communities would be an important voice in the debate. “So I just question the depth of his commitment to that cause, to that legislation.”
Still, the proposal may at least make it further than it did last year, when a bill sponsored by House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) faced so much opposition that House leadership didn’t even bring it to the floor. Members have expressed confidence that Speaker Paul Ryan will bring it up this time, especially after he offered his support in a June blog post calling for “innovation” in air travel.
But Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize the FAA — similar to the tight timeframes for raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government running. The Senate’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill would leave the agency in charge of air traffic control, so the chambers would need to reconcile two dramatically different visions for an aviation system that safeguards the lives of millions of travelers.
“We want to get it to the floor,” Shuster told POLITICO before Congress’ July 4 recess. “We’re talking. People have to understand what we’re doing.”
Shuster’s proposal would place the FAA’s air traffic control operation — including its thousands of controllers — under a nonprofit corporation that would be funded by user fees and overseen by a board that includes representatives of airlines, small-plane owners, airports and labor unions. The new entity could also take over a long-running, multibillion-dollar air traffic modernization project that the airlines — and Trump — accuse the FAA of mishandling.
“A modern air traffic control system will make life better for all Americans who travel, ship or fly,” Trump said in his June 5 speech, promising that the system would deliver “cheaper, faster and safer travel.”
Major interests have squared off on the proposal. Major airlines support it and are urging their passengers to get behind the push to “modernize air traffic control.” But groups representing small-plane owners are lobbying against it, in part because they say it would give too much control to the airlines.
Democrats have lined up against the plan, calling it a giveaway to the airline industry. And not even all Republicans are sold, including members of Congress’ appropriating and tax-writing committees.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who chairs House Appropriations’ transportation panel, has objected that the nonprofit entity would escape congressional oversight while getting an estimated $40 billion in FAA equipment and other assets. “They’re not mine; they’re not yours — they’re the American people’s,” he said in March.
House GOP tax writers — who played a key role in heading off the measure last time — have been cagier in this go-round.
Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) called the White House’s list of air traffic control principles a “serious proposal” that “deserves serious consideration.”
“I’m going to go through the details on that,” Brady said last month. “But what I do know is what we’ve got right now isn’t working. Our air traffic infrastructure is falling behind and you just aren’t seeing the improvements and progress that need to be made.”
Other former opponents of Shuster’s bill have been much quieter. They include former House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who signed onto a letter last year blasting Shuster’s plan but has remained noncommittal so far in 2017. He told POLITICO last month that he’s reserving judgment for now.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a Transportation Committee member who is close to the White House, said he thinks Trump’s support has been critical to getting more lawmakers to lean "yes."
“The president brought it before the American people and talked about his support for it, and I thought it was heard here by members of the Congress,” he said.
“I think members took it more seriously when [Trump] came out and openly endorsed it, yeah,” Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), a member of Ways and Means, told POLITICO. "And then the speaker did as well."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — whose office sets the legislative schedule — was one of the lawmakers who attended Trump’s air traffic control rollout.
But not even all Republicans on Shuster’s committee support his FAA proposal. Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita voted no when Shuster’s panel cleared the bill in a 32-25 vote in late June, calling it “fundamentally flawed” because of the potential for any one interest group to hold too much sway over the system. He also said that unlike a "true privatization effort," Shuster’s bill “does not reduce the regulatory state or the number of workers."
House Transportation member Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot who opposed the bill last year, voted yes this time after Shuster agreed to changes such as exempting owners of small planes and business jets from user fees. But he still wasn’t sure how much Trump’s support has swayed members’ thinking.
"I mean, that’s hard to tell at this point," said Graves, who hopes to succeed Shuster as chairman. "It’s hard to underestimate the president’s power, too, when it comes to persuasion, any president.”
In the Senate, meanwhile, the Commerce Committee’s more straight-up FAA reauthorization bill faces its own challenges because of details such as pilot-training requirements. Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has said for months that he wouldn’t have the votes to pass the bill out of his panel if it included Shuster’s air traffic control overhaul.
If the House and Senate can’t agree, one likely scenario is that lawmakers will simply extend the FAA’s current authorization while they hash things out. In past FAA renewals, that process has sometimes lasted years.
The Transportation Committee’s top Democrat, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, said Trump’s backing has “shifted things on the margin” in Congress.
"Ryan didn’t support bringing the bill to the floor last year. He’s trying to deliver something for the president, so maybe he thinks this is his something he might be able to deliver,” DeFazio said. “So the dynamics have changed to that extent.”
Trump’s influence has its limits, however.
"I’m still concerned about security and who has jurisdiction," Ways and Means member Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) told POLITICO before the recess. He has yet to take a position on the bill.
When asked whether Trump’s support for the change had affected the political calculus for lawmakers, Reichert said: "Not for me."
Tanya Snyder contributed to this report.