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FAA Funding Debate

Point of Order

FAA funding and Civics 101 Thanks to that eighth-grade government class we all had to take, most of us can recall the basics of the legislative process. "How a bill becomes law" is the usual reference to those rudimentary civics lessons.

FAA funding and Civics 101

Thanks to that eighth-grade government class we all had to take, most of us can recall the basics of the legislative process. "How a bill becomes law" is the usual reference to those rudimentary civics lessons. But now we are facing the possibility of proposals that would charge you nearly four times as much in fuel taxes, and over the longer term could impose user fees every time you filed a flight plan, flew an instrument approach, or talked to a controller. Therefore, those boring old legislative mechanics take on a very immediate concern. That's because we have a big stake in the outcome of the next few months' developments on Capitol Hill. Developments that AOPA is taking a very active role to influence.

In the classic model, bills move in an orderly fashion. Some congressman or senator hatches an idea, creates a bill that proposes a new law, and gets some of his colleagues to help sponsor it. Then the bill is dropped into the hopper, the majority leaders send it along to a committee, which sends it to a subcommittee, and hearings are held. The bill may be amended, then debated in the House of Representatives and Senate, then sent to a conference committee for a final hashing-out of any remaining issues between House and Senate conferees. That accomplished, the House and Senate go on to vote for the final bill. Finally, the finished product is signed into law by the president in a press event, featuring the key participants in the whole process, and maybe even their kids. Commemorative pens are distributed, smiles abound, and newspapers and television dutifully capture the happy moment.

This all makes for an inspiring image of democracy in action, but reality is a lot more complicated. Like knowing how sausage is made, sometimes it's best not to contemplate lawmaking in action. In real life, legislation is controlled chaos. Sort of like an instrument flight plan that is constantly amended by air traffic control. A bill may be killed in committee, or ignored to death by any number of players in the legislative process. Wheeling and dealing may radically change its originally intended purpose. The congressional session may expire before the bill ever comes up for a vote. And with the FAA-funding debate, these sorts of chaotic twists and turns are just beginning.

It's alive!

At this early stage, we can begin to see how the funding issue will start to make its way through Congress. Its life has already diverged from the oversimplified eighth-grade model. First of all, no one in the House or Senate has launched the initiative. Instead, the FAA itself is the prime driver.

For nearly two years, the FAA — mainly in the form of its administrator, Marion Blakey — has been going around saying that it needs more money in its budget, so that modernization and other initiatives are funded adequately. To fulfill that goal, late last year the FAA submitted its list of financial requirements to its cabinet-level overseer, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The DOT and OMB will have reviewed its funding request, with an eye toward its agreement with President Bush's financial and political goals. The president's council of economic advisors — economic gurus hired by the White House — is central in this process.

It's worth mentioning that the current administration is a strong believer in less government, more privatization, and limiting taxes — so the concept of user fees fits right in with its ideological tendencies. On the other hand, the administration may well make an exception, abandoning user fees in favor of higher taxes. AOPA, however, believes that the FAA can already be adequately funded under the current system of fuel and airline ticket taxes (see " User-Fee Debate: Battle Brewing," February Pilot).

The battle begins

The next step was scheduled to come shortly after the president's State of the Union address, delivered to a joint session of Congress on January 23. That's when the administration's carefully prepared budget — containing any references to user fees — was to leave the White House, bound for Capitol Hill.

Earlier that same day, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Mary Peters, fired the first real opening salvo in the FAA funding debate. "We must retool our policies and our financing," she said at the Washington Aero Club. "The importance of getting a financing bill that ties revenues to costs and allows us to manage the FAA more efficiently cannot be overstated. The FAA needs a new funding mechanism, and ... we must have incentives in place that will make the system more efficient as well as more responsive to user needs." According to Washington insiders, this is code for user fees, which would directly tie revenues to costs. An alternative to user fees could be the poison of higher taxes. Worst case: a combination of both.

It's in committee

Once a bill is finally sent to the committee level, the grunt work of lawmaking happens. In the case of FAA funding, there are several committees that will have a big say in how the FAA will ultimately be funded. This involves both authorization of funds (approval of funding levels) and appropriation (in essence, approving of actual payments) from those funds.

At this writing, we don't have any insight on the details of committee goings-on, but we can briefly describe the main players. A subsequent article will discuss individual committee dynamics and members' thinking on FAA funding.

On the House side — where all debate on funding originates — the following committees will participate:

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Headed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), a general aviation proponent. This authorizing committee is responsible for major public transportation structures and systems, including bridges, dams, highways — and airports. For more information, visit the Web site. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee refers aviation matters to a subcommittee known, logically enough, as the:

Aviation subcommittee. Led by Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.). This subcommittee is involved solely in aviation matters, and is part of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It will be the initial body to deal with FAA funding, and the funding of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

Ways and Means Committee. Chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). This powerful committee is a tax-writing body, and any revenue-producing bills must pass through Ways and Means first. For more information, visit the Web site.

In the Senate, the relevant committees are the:

Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Chaired by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). This authorizing committee has jurisdiction over civil aviation and even space policy, as well as highways and pipelines, to name a few areas affecting public conveyance. Visit the Web site for news, hearings, and other background information.

Aviation subcommittee. Chaired by Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). This group is analogous to the House aviation subcommittee, is attached to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and also holds hearings and debate on aviation matters — such as FAA financing — so that it can advise its parent committee.

Committee on Finance. Chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). This committee is similar to the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Visit this committiee's Web site for more information.

Markup and conference

It will be up to the committees mentioned to accept the administration's proposals, or come up with an alternative plan. But it's not going to be all that quick and easy.

Bear in mind that both the House and Senate may come up with their own versions of an FAA-funding plan. These versions will reflect the input received during extensive public hearings, in which AOPA will provide key testimonials. The House bill will come via the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Senate's from the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

But wait! Before any bills come before the full House or Senate, they are reworked in each committee in a process called markup. The marked-up bills then go up for a vote of endorsement before the full House or Senate.

After that, one of several things can happen. The House or Senate can accept one or the other's version of the endorsed, marked-up bill out of hand. Or a contested bill may be sent back and forth from House to Senate, over and over, until agreement is reached. Or a conference committee may be created for the express purpose of reaching an acceptable compromise.

If a compromise is reached in the conference committee, fine. The bill goes back to both chambers again for a final reading and vote. This process usually succeeds, and the bill goes on to be certified and signed off by both the speaker of the House and the Senate leadership.

But a successful compromise will send the bill to President Bush, who also has a chance to kill it. He can veto it and, yes, the bill-becomes-law ordeal starts over. Or he can sign it into law.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, we're getting geared up for the committee hearings, which are the great forums for all those with stakes in the bill's outcome. AOPA will be there in force, leveraging the political clout of more than 400,000 members. And we'll be documenting the steps in these pages and on our Web site dedicated solely to the funding issue.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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