Washington will look very different come January. For the first time since 1994, the Democrats will control the House of Representatives. And for the first time in history, the speaker of the House will be a woman - Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California.
"This shift in power in the House changes the picture for us on the user fee fight," said Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Phil Boyer, "but it doesn't mean we've won the battle.
"However, now we can be assured of a fair hearing from people who understand aviation and aren't beholden to the White House."
Aviation user fees are very much an idea pushed down from the Bush administration. But the power shift in the House will most likely put Rep. Jim Oberstar (D) of Minnesota in charge of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Any law to change the way the FAA is funded will have to originate in that committee. As chairman, Oberstar would control what legislation gets passed out to the full House to vote on.
Rep. Oberstar, a longtime friend to general aviation, has historically opposed corporatizing or privatizing air traffic control, and he is highly skeptical of any changes to the current, proven FAA funding system.
There will also be a change in the leadership of the aviation subcommittee. The two most likely contenders for that job are Representatives Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon and Jerry Costello (D) of Illinois. AOPA has a longtime relationship with these key individuals. Both are knowledgeable about general aviation, and both have demonstrated a willingness to listen and understand the ramifications of user fees on general aviation.
But on the other hand, the power shift also brings to the forefront some lawmakers who have concerns about general aviation security. "We'll have more work to do to educate people about the great strides we've made in improving security, and to the minimal threat that GA represents," said Boyer.
To accomplish anything on Capitol Hill you have to have relationships with lawmakers and their staffs so that you can talk to them. It's not the kind of thing you can do with a phone call or an occasional trip into the nation's capital. AOPA has a staff of professionals dedicated to building these relationships. AOPA uses its independently funded political action committee (PAC) and other tools to keep the association in the forefront of lawmakers' minds. AOPA gave its support to 143 candidates this election. The criterion for AOPA's support was simply based on what the candidate had done - or could do - for general aviation.
The association did well in picking the winners - more than 90 percent of the AOPA-backed candidates were elected. When it comes time to talk about user fees, those winners will remember - and listen to AOPA's arguments.
While it's clear what the balance of power will be in the House, as of this morning, the Senate is still undecided. Control will be determined by the outcome of two state Senate elections - Virginia and Montana. The Democrats have to win both to take control.
Virginia is a dead heat, with Democrat James Webb slightly ahead by the smallest of margins. In Montana, incumbent Conrad Burns is in the fight of his life; he's trailed most of the night.
If Burns, a Republican, loses, general aviation will lose a good friend who is chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. But if the Republicans retain control of the Senate, the most likely replacement as aviation subcommittee chairman would be Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott previously chaired the subcommittee, and he was given AOPA's Hartranft Award for breaking the logjam on AIR-21, the legislation that unlocked the aviation trust fund and made more money available for airports.
"This election was a referendum, with American voters making statements about corruption, terrorism, the economy, and the war in Iraq," said Boyer. "On these broader issues, some of our members are likely unhappy with the results. "But on the specific issue of aviation funding and user fees, we're well positioned with the people newly in power who will, at the very least, listen to us."
With more than 409,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation association, working to protect the interests of general aviation. Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. pilots are members of AOPA.
November 8, 2006