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Very shaky start for anti-US ATC privatization coalition

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Cummings said if Shuster put his ATC reform proposal on the table, Democrats are willing to talk.

A new coalition opposed to US ATC “privatization” held a conference call with media to emphasize how well the existing structure of FAA is working and how the current ATC management setup should be protected in upcoming FAA reauthorization legislation. It touted two members of the US House of Representatives who were on their side, and gave those members most of the speaking time on the conference call.

The members of Congress, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington DC), then proceeded to use much of their time to explain, well, that the current FAA structure is actually pretty problematic. Talk about a lack of message discipline!

There was a bizarre disconnect between several representatives from Washington DC-based advocacy groups, who have come together to create a coalition called Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization (AAATP), and Cummings and Norton, who were put forward by AAATP as backers of their cause.

Whereas the AAATP spokespeople slammed NAV Canada and the UK’s NATS, Norton said, “I would like more hearings to learn more of what Canada and England have done” regarding ATC. When I asked Norton whether she would oppose any FAA reauthorization bill that included a plan to separate ATC from FAA—to which the AAATP spokespeople said they are strongly opposed—Norton said, “I can’t tell you I’m opposed to X or Y.”

She then pointed to “great problems” with the way FAA has implemented NextGen ATC modernization and added, “So we’ve got big problems with FAA.” Regarding the ATC structure AAATP wants to fiercely protect, she said, “You will not find many members [of Congress] saying, ‘Hey, we like it the way it is’.”

Norton, in fact, said it would be a mistake for Congressional Democrats to “look like we’re for the status quo.” But AAATP is basically saying it wants the status quo!

Cummings, for his part, was a bit closer to the AAATP line, saying the ATC “system that we have now … has been a very strong, effective and efficient system.” But he acknowledged, “We are kind of arguing against something we don’t know all about.” In other words, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) has not yet made his ATC reform proposal public, so AAATP is—rather forcefully (in a way that could make negotiations difficult)—arguing against what it thinks the proposal might include.

But Cummings said that if Shuster put his “arguments” for ATC reform on the table, he and other Democrats are willing to talk—again, a departure from AAATP. “It’s never been about [Democrats] being the party of no,” Cummings said, adding, “Let’s discuss [Shuster’s proposal].”

Cummings put his finger on why AAATP sounds so shaky: “When you are arguing a case when you don’t know what it’s all about, it’s very hard.”

Part of the burden here is on Shuster. It is time for him to put his proposal on the table. Washington is full of people who take sides for a living. “ATC privatization,” sans details, can sound pretty scary for groups that normally argue on behalf of consumers. So people are starting to argue against it before they “know what it’s all about,” in the words of Cummings.

Coalitions like AAATP can argue against a frightening boogeyman as long as there is no concrete proposal on the table. The problem for Shuster and advocates of ATC reform is that if he waits too long to put out a proposal and start negotiations, too many people in Washington—both inside and outside Congress—will already be totally invested in being AGAINST, no matter what he proposes.

I think it’s overblown to talk about Washington’s “good old days” of bipartisanship. The US is a vibrant democracy and there needs to be robust arguments about public policy. BUT those arguments should be based on facts and reason. The problem in Washington is not really a lack of bipartisanship. It is that far too many people in This Town are willing to make fools of themselves just so they can be FOR or AGAINST something, without caring at all about the details of what they are for or against.

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