President's Position

Washington finds a path forward

September 1, 2011

Craig FullerIf the summertime debate over raising the debt ceiling and reducing the deficit just a few weeks ago seemed difficult, just wait for what lies ahead!

The debt ceiling has been used before to produce what Washington calls an “action forcing event.” With the need to pay our nation’s bills and not fall into a default position with our creditors, the Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, legislation that charts a path forward. The measure provides for about $1 trillion in spending reductions over the next 10 years, allowing Congress to approve an increase in the debt ceiling.

While significant, this is not enough to provide a lasting solution. Furthermore, with the clock running and no consensus around how to reach agreement on another trillion-plus-dollar package of spending and revenue proposals, Congress and the president agreed to a process where a special committee of legislators will come forward with proposals by Thanksgiving. This second step will trigger another necessary increase in the debt ceiling.

The decision to use a special committee gives the nation a little breathing room to avoid default while seeking the path to consensus on an even larger deficit-reduction package. Although special committees have been utilized by Congress to reach other challenging decisions, I do not remember a committee with such a broad mission. What this panel puts on the table will eventually be voted on in an up-or-down vote. If the committee’s proposal is not approved, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect. And, unlike the initial package of a few weeks ago, the committee is expected to look at “revenue reform” measures designed to reduce the budget deficit by adding more revenue.

Before Congress and the president reached this initial agreement, we heard talk of user fees for general aviation. We asked you, our members, to tell your elected representatives that user fees on GA are the wrong way to raise revenues.

It is clear that our collective voices were heard at the end of July. Members of Congress reported hearing from thousands of you. Even without a specific piece of legislation to target, our strong opposition to user fees to fund the FAA found its mark.

Here’s the challenge: Without hearings and without the committees we work most closely with weighing in on various revenue-raising measures, the threat of a user fee in the “path forward” has grown. Indeed, there is the real probability that GA will pay more to support the FAA in the future. Our real fight may be over how this revenue is raised. We recognize that the nation’s ongoing economic troubles mean just about everyone is going to have to pay a little more. We’ve long agreed to some increases in the excise tax we pay on the fuel we use as part of an FAA reauthorization measure. This approach to raising revenue requires no new bureaucracy, since we pay at the pump—as we have since fuel started flowing into powered aircraft.

What we will seek to avoid in the weeks ahead is a new user-fee bureaucracy of the kind that has been so damaging to GA in Europe. We also want to avoid being charged fees for operations—that amounts to paying a penalty for using the air traffic control system and it can have serious safety implications. Paying at the pump is far more desirable and it has worked for decades.

If we are going to succeed in avoiding user fees, we are going to need the support of the entire GA community. We are all bound together in important ways. Some in Congress or the Obama administration will suggest a fee on larger aircraft or, perhaps, jet aircraft. But such fees have an insidious way of expanding, which is why we must push back. If you put a fee on one part of our GA fleet it will spread to the rest—this has been the case in other countries.

We are going to need to remind our policy makers again that General Aviation Serves America. We create jobs and sustain economic growth throughout the country. And, the growth of our general aviation industry brings jobs in a number of related industries as well.

We can be certain that the next round of negotiations will be at least as contentious as the last—and you can be assured that general aviation will be among the many targets of revenue-raising efforts. Back in July, some policy makers were already flagging tax breaks for aircraft used for business as a place where new revenue might be found.

The bottom line is that we have a great story to tell about the contributions general aviation makes in this country. Tell it we will, and tell it we must!

Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at craig@aopa.org.