AOPA President Phil Boyer leads a team of dedicated individuals in advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill.
Right now I feel like I'm in the eye of a hurricane. It's a calm that won't last. At this writing, Congress is on its summer recess. But they'll be back September 4, and then the action becomes fast and furious as they try to complete all of the legislation that should be in place before the federal fiscal year begins October 1. As I've explained before, the government's authority to collect and spend aviation taxes expires September 30. As you know well, our opponents in the FAA and with the airlines are trying to use this window of opportunity to change the way the FAA is funded, decrease airline taxes, increase GA taxes, take control of management of the air traffic system, and start us down the slippery slope of user fees (see " FAA Funding Debate: Home Stretch," page 85).
But they've run up against some very tough opponents — you! Thanks to your continued support, AOPA and other general aviation organizations nearly succeeded in knocking the user-fee clause out of the Senate bill.
In the House is an FAA funding bill that is as close to perfect as you can get within the compromises of Washington politics. H.R.2881 — the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 — would pay for air traffic control modernization (NextGen) and continue an efficient tax system that fairly distributes FAA funding costs among all aviation users. And it does it without user fees!
The bill includes a modest increase in general aviation fuel taxes (an additional 4.8 cents-per-gallon on avgas, 8.9 cents-per-gallon on Jet A) that accounts for inflation since the last adjustment to the fuel tax. It also includes increases in some transactional charges (registering an aircraft, issuing a certificate) that haven't been touched since the 1960s.
While nobody wants to pay more, we think these taxes are reasonable and are well worth paying as general aviation's contribution toward NextGen and a robust airport aid program.
And, quite frankly, our support for H.R.2881 makes us the reasonable ones in the FAA funding debate. We told Congress, "User fees are a non-starter. But we're willing to discuss taxes and paying more for NextGen."
Contrast that with the airlines' demands: "You must build NextGen, you must cut our taxes, and GA must pay more."
While the airlines got traction in the Senate, they've hit a series of brick walls in the House. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee listened to the evidence presented by AOPA, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Department of Transportation Inspector General, and concluded that the current aviation excise tax system would easily generate the revenue necessary to run the FAA and build NextGen. They rejected an airline tax cut, and rejected calls for a radical new FAA funding system and user fees.
Then the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Transportation Committee asked their colleagues on the tax committee (House Ways and Means Committee) to take their recommendations for continuing aviation fuel taxes as the best way to finance the FAA. At a hearing on August 1, Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told the Transportation Committee members, "It seems like you've reached a pretty good balance here. You aren't disproportionally shifting the burden of paying for the system from one group to another group, especially the small guy."
Predicting congressional outcomes is chancy, but I think that H.R.2881 will be approved by the full House before the September 30 deadline. The bipartisan support of the Transportation Committee (including ranking member Rep. John Mica from Florida who originally seemed supportive of the FAA's user-fee proposal) carries a lot of weight with the House.
Prompt action is not so certain in the Senate. Unlike the House Transportation Committee, under the strong leadership of Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), the Senate Commerce Committee is split in supporting its FAA funding bill (S.1300). There are also strong opponents to the current bill, including Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who are prepared to challenge user fees should the bill get to the floor of the Senate. That makes it unlikely that S.1300 will be voted on before September 30. With so much else the Senate has to act on, controversial bills are expected to be deferred until later, which means that Congress will likely pass a temporary extension of the current aviation taxes, and the battle over a new FAA funding bill could extend into October or November, or even later.
Like me, I know that you all want a resolution to this issue right now. But I ask you to continue to hang in there with us, because we need your support now more than ever.
Here's what you can do now. While your senators and representative are still "at home," attend one of their public meetings and let them know — face to face — that you support H.R.2881. If you haven't done so already, sign our online petition against user fees and in favor of excise taxes, and encourage every pilot you know to do the same. We will present the petition at the time when it will have the greatest impact. Finally, make sure we have your e-mail address. We will be asking all of you to write or call your representatives in Congress, but only at the moment when your voice will make a critical difference. And you will make the difference. With your support, we can get an FAA funding bill that treats GA fairly and ensures the future of aviation in the United States.