David Lightman ?and Curtis Tate
WASHINGTON: Congress moved fast Friday to ease delays at airports around the nation triggered by furloughs of air traffic controllers, as the House of Representatives approved by 361-41 a budget fix designed to avert more trouble.
The vote came only after a bruising debate over budget priorities, with many lawmakers wondering why Congress was so quick to help air travelers and not programs that affect schools, poverty or other areas. Despite the concerns, the bill passed easily and lawmakers headed home — often to the airports — to start a nine-day break.
The Senate had passed its version of the measure Thursday night.
The debate capped a week of protests from consumers and growing concern that federal budget cuts were crippling the nation’s air traffic system. On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration began asking its 13,000 air traffic controllers to take unpaid days off to comply with the sequester, the across-the-board, mandatory spending cuts that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed to address long-term federal budget deficits.
Hundreds of flights a day encountered delays attributed to the furloughs, snarling the nation’s commercial aviation system. Without a fix, the problem was expected only to get worse with the busy summer travel season approaching.
On Wednesday, the FAA reported 863 delays related to staff reductions, in addition to 2,132 delays it attributed to weather and other factors.
The bill permits the Transportation Department to transfer as much as $253 million from other parts of the agency so that furloughs and control tower closings could be averted. The money will come from airport improvement grants that haven’t been spent.
The solution essentially acknowledged what the Obama administration and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had been telling lawmakers all week: Under the law that Congress enacted more than a year and a half ago, the agency couldn’t simply move money between accounts to make up for the gap in payroll, which accounts for 70 percent of its budget.
Few seemed happy with the last-minute deal. During a fiery House debate Friday, Republicans charged that Democrats were playing games.
“This is no way to run a government,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House appropriations transportation subcommittee. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called the problem “President Obama’s needless furlough.”
Democrats were upset that only the FAA was being helped. “There are other agencies that have to make their cuts and are in a crisis themselves,” said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., the transportation panel’s top Democrat.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., opposed the measure, reading a long list of others who are affected by the automatic spending cuts. “Nothing in here for them,” he repeated over and over.