After 13 days of political stalemate over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, lawmakers announced today a deal to end the shutdown that has sent more than 75,000 workers and contractors home without pay.
Tomorrow the Senate will pass the temporary FAA funding bill that the House passed two weeks ago. A procedural vote will allow the bill to pass by unanimous consent in a matter of minutes without forcing Senators to return to Washington from their August "district work break."
This is the bill Senate Democrats objected to because it cut off subsidies to 13 rural airports.
So, did Democrats cave? After all they are agreeing to pass the Republican bill approved by the House.
They caved, but not entirely. Once the deal is passed and signed, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will use his authority – granted in the bill – to issue a waiver allowing at least some of the subsidies to continue.
"This is a tremendous victory for American workers everywhere," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
An end to the impasse is exactly what furloughed FAA civil engineer Curt Howe has been pleading with Congressmen for over the past two days. Howe, 54, has worked for the FAA in Seattle, Washington for 24 years and came to D.C. yesterday to urge Congress to reauthorize the FAA so he and his fellow engineers could go back to work.
If a deal was not reached, Howe would have joined 4,000 of his FAA colleagues in the unemployment line, not because he lost his job, but because he has been furloughed.
The FAA was partially shut down July 23 after House Republicans and Senate Democrats failed to reach an agreement to continue funding the agency. The Washington dispute has, in effect, laid off about 75,000 people who work for the agency or on an FAA-funded airport construction project.
With both chambers on their August "district work" break, the shutdown looked like it could go on until at least Labor Day. The Senate's decision to swallow the rural subsidy cuts pill will end the shutdown without forcing Senators to fly back to Washington.
"I don't think Congress real knew the impact of what they didn't do," Howe said. "[My colleagues] thought for sure Congress would take care of it before they went on recess. They are just baffled."
Howe said if the shutdown had continued into September he and his wife may not have been able to make their mortgage payment or pay their daughter's college tuition bill.
Nevertheless, Howe said he was in a better situation than some of his younger co-workers because he has had more time to build his savings. He said many of his co-workers have $600 to $700 monthly student loan payments that would have been tough to pay without their roughly $2,000 per month FAA paycheck.
"It's a huge, huge impact," Howe said. "A lot of engineers' plan is to run their credit cards up and go into debt. What we won't get back is our credit ratings."
Even with the FAA back up and running, Congress will have to approve a separate measure for the furloughed workers to receive back-pay for the shutdown days.
The Congressional impasse stems from a disagreement over $16.5 million in subsidies to rural airports, which the House voted to eliminate, and a new labor law decided by the National Mediation board which makes it easier for airline employees to unionize, a law Democrats support and Republicans hope to overturn.
The House has already passed a short-term funding bill that until today Senate Democrats refused to pass it because of the subsidy cuts. House Republicans, on the other hand, refused to take up a clean extension, which Senate Democrats support, because, as House Speaker John Boehner said, "the House has done it's job."
While Congress fights over the $16.5 million subsidy cuts, the federal government is losing about $30 million per day in airline ticket taxes because the FAA cannot collect the taxes while it is shutdown.
"They're trying to save $14 million really out of a $160 million program. But we're losing $200 million a week in ticket tax revenue. The passengers are paying it. The [airlines] are pocketing it. We need that money," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said on ABC's "TopLine" today.
If Congress had waited to pass an extension utnil after returning from their summer break, the federal government would have lost about $1.3 billion.
"Don't put the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk, don't put projects at risk and don't let a billion dollars at a time when we're scrambling for every dollar we can get left on the table because Congress did not act," President Obama said yesterday.
Even though the FAA cannot collect taxes, most of the airlines have increased their prices so the would-be tax revenue is now going to the airlines' bottom line. Only Alaska, Hawaiian and Spirit airlines have passed the tax savings on to their customers.
"We didn't spend a lot of time thinking about this one," said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan. "We were pretty surprised to learn on Monday that the majority of our competitors chose to pocket the money. Our logic was these were taxes and fees we were already turning over to government and therefore we didn't feel it was the right thing to do to keep the money."
Since the FAA shutdown began almost two weeks ago, Alaska Airlines has seen a 26 percent increase in ticket bookings. Passengers are saving, for example about $40 on a $300 round trip ticket with one layover each way. The Treasury Department is looking into whether the federal government can collect the would-be tax revenue from airlines that have increased their fares once the FAA is reauthorized.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said repeatedly that air travel safety will not be affected by the shutdown because air traffic controllers and safety inspection personnel are continuing to work. The safety inspectors, though, are currently working for free and paying their own travel expenses because the FAA cannot access the funds to pay them without Congressional approval.
"We are depending and living on their professionalism at this point," FAA Administrator Randy Babbit said last week of the unpaid safety inspectors.
Despite LaHood's multiple claims that safety is not affected, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned today that communication between air traffic controllers and pilots could be compromised in Chicago because of an unfinished construction project.
Technicians at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center were replacing one of the air conditioning handlers at the center when the FAA funding expired, forcing them to stop working.
If the other air conditioning unit and the back-up unit fail, "the entire Chicago airspace could be without communications," said Luke Drake, the regional vice president for Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.
"This situation diminishes the margin of safety for critical air traffic control systems by leaving important components offline," Drake said. "This is another example of why Congress needs to return to D.C. and pass an FAA extension immediately in order to get the furloughed employees back to work who ensure the safe and efficient operation of the aviation system."