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FAA reauthorization: There has to be a better way

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Perhaps significant FAA reform should be decoupled from FAA reauthorization.

“The next reauthorization I say should be transformational. We need to do something different. We need to lay the foundation for the future … We’ve got to think big and bold … We need to think bigger than just a simple FAA reauthorization … I’ve talked to many members on both sides of the aisle already and I think there are many areas where Republicans and Democrats can come together on FAA reauthorization.” –US House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), Sept. 17, 2014

“We are committed to this being the only extension. We’re not going to have a repeat of last time … I do not want multiple extensions, particularly not in a presidential election year.” –Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Sept. 28, 2015

Shuster and DeFazio had to eat those words this week as the House meekly passed another extension of FAA’s authorization, this time until Sept. 30, 2017, meaning FAA will end up running on temporary extensions for about two-thirds of the decade from Sept. 30, 2007-Sept. 30, 2017. During that 10-year stretch, FAA will have operated under an official reauthorization only from February 2012 through September 2015—and that came after 23 temporary extensions and a two-week partial shutdown of FAA in the 2011 summer.

Something is not working here, to say the least. Shuster can say he did propose a transformational FAA reauthorization bill—a plan to remove air traffic control (ATC) from FAA and create an independent entity modeled after NAV Canada to operate and manage ATC in the US. But he couldn’t even convince the leadership of his own party in the House to bring up the legislation for a simple floor vote, and his Senate counterpart, John Thune (R-South Dakota), completely ignored Shuster’s ATC plan.

What credit Shuster deserves for proposing a “big and bold” FAA reauthorization bill has to be tempered by demerits for his handling of the proposed bill’s rollout and aftermath. A toxic atmosphere quickly developed that saw other members of Congress—in both parties—distancing themselves from him and his proposal.

But Shuster is far from the only one deserving blame for the current situation. Too many interest groups in Washington are reflexively opposed to any FAA reform—and often don’t even bother to gain a rudimentary understanding of the underlying issues.

The biggest problem may be that FAA simply isn’t a priority for most members of Congress. Lawmakers closely involved in FAA reauthorization efforts over the years have often talked about finding sweet spots in the Congressional calendar when major FAA legislation can be seriously debated. But something always comes up to push FAA reauthorization to the sidelines, and lawmakers just end up scrambling to pass extensions to avoid a partial shutdown of the agency—which, when it happened in 2011, was the only time FAA reauthorization seeped into the mainstream of America’s consciousness.

What’s the answer? This may sound counterintuitive, but perhaps significant FAA reform should be decoupled from FAA reauthorization. Lawmakers have long used FAA reauthorization deadlines to propose major changes in federal aviation policy. This seemingly makes sense, but what repeatedly happens is that opponents of a given reform use the ticking clock to their advantage. The combination of a looming deadline and “big and bold” change just hasn’t worked. Time begins to run out, forcing lawmakers like Shuster to abandon their proposals to avoid the embarrassment of FAA’s authority lapsing. FAA lurches from one extension to the next.

Here’s an idea: Focus on passing a long-term FAA reauthorization bill in 2017 (say, for 5-7 years) that will give the agency some certainty and remove the partial shutdown threat, and then, separately, work on an ATC reform bill that is not tied to the agency’s authority to operate in other areas, such as airline safety inspections. Focus on ATC reform as “infrastructure modernization” rather than a remodeling of FAA, which, after all, would maintain oversight over ATC under any reform scenario.

There is no reason ATC reform and other changes in US aviation policy can’t be handled outside of FAA reauthorization. When everything from airline consumer protection to unmanned aircraft regulation to ATC restructuring is thrown into one, big reauthorization bill, there is plenty for people not to like and for lawmakers to vote against. Why not take the question of FAA’s authorization off the table? No one is against FAA being authorized to operate. And then tackle areas that need to be reformed under separate legislation.

It’s at least worth a shot. The ongoing threat of FAA’s authority lapsing, and all the uncertainty this creates, has more than run its course as a legislative strategy.

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