Melanie Zanona The Hill
Crunch Time for Air Traffic Control Push
July 11, 2017
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  • It’s crunch time for Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) plan to separate air traffic control from the federal government.

    The House Transportation Committee chairman will spend the next several weeks working to sell House members on his signature effort and trying to wrangle enough votes to get the spinoff proposal off the floor — an accomplishment that eluded him last year.

    But while support for the idea is growing, Shuster is competing with a packed legislative calendar, a ticking clock and internal divisions in the GOP conference over the proposal.

    Still, Shuster says he has his best shot yet of implementing a dramatic overhaul of the country’s air traffic control system, especially with President Trump’s strong endorsement of the privatization model.

    “I’ve been having very good conversations with the Speaker and House leaders to move the 21st Century [Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization] Act to the Floor before August and I am encouraged that the momentum is fully with us,” Shuster said in a statement. “Right now, my focus is on talking to all members — Republicans and Democrats alike — about why this bill is so important for American jobs, innovation, and the future of our aviation system.”

    “We are making very good progress,” he added.

    The Transportation panel approved legislation last month that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for six years while also transferring the agency’s air navigation system to a private, nonprofit corporation.

    The new entity would be governed by a board of directors that would have the power to collect user fees, while the FAA would still maintain oversight of safety.

    Supporters of the spinoff model argue it is necessary to modernize outdated air traffic control technology, reduce flight delays and remove operations from the financial and political uncertainty of Congress.

    It’s an idea that Shuster has been pushing for years, and he hopes to turn it into a reality before his term as chairman expires at the end of next year.

    But he is up against the clock, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.

    The policy proposal stalled last year amid opposition from Democrats, rural lawmakers and GOP tax-writers and appropriators, who were concerned about giving away their congressional oversight and allowing a nongovernmental agency to impose user fees.

    GOP leaders never brought the legislation to the House floor, forcing Congress to enact a short-term reauthorization of the FAA.

    This year, however, House leadership has been warming up to the idea, increasing the likelihood that it will see a floor vote.

    Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stood alongside Trump in the White House when he formally announced his support for the spinoff plan, while Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) later commended Trump’s push to modernize air traffic control in a blog post.

    “The technology used is decades old. … That’s why President Trump’s proposal this week to modernize our nation’s stagnant air traffic control system is so important,” Ryan wrote. “The plan he outlined is built off of bipartisan reforms put forward by Congress, with the leadership of Chairman Shuster and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which builds on decades of bipartisan work.”

    There is a lot at stake for supporters of the spinoff plan. If the full House votes on the legislation, it will be the first time that the majority of the chamber will be going on the record on the issue. A strong vote could send a clear message to the Senate, where lawmakers are moving ahead without the spinoff plan.

    Shuster knows he is facing a critical stretch over the next few weeks. He plans to pitch the proposal to colleagues during conference meetings and in other settings and highlight the newfound support of two Democrats, Reps. Colleen Hanabusa (Hawaii) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

    The chairman will also have reinforcements from the White House. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, and DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy, have both been reaching out to members to build support for the privatization push, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

    However, some House Republicans still remain staunchly opposed to the idea: Rep. Todd Rokita (Ind.), who opposed the proposal in committee this year and last year, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.

    Many other GOP lawmakers have yet to take a formal public position — and that’s where Shuster and White House officials may try to make their case.

    One group where they could gain support is among rural lawmakers who are concerned that general aviation users and rural airports would not be adequately protected under the new model and could face higher fees or lose access to airspace.

    Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot who voted against the spinoff proposal last year, worked on compromise language with Shuster this year to exempt all general aviation users from any user fees imposed by the new entity and to ensure that the new board would have a diverse makeup.

    But the changes were not enough to win over outside general aviation groups, which include small private planes and corporate jets.

    That’s why Graves, who is angling to become chairman of the Transportation panel next year, is expected to be a critical ally in convincing fellow rural lawmakers who may still be worried about the spinoff model.

    Although moving the privatization plan through the House would overcome a significant hurdle, the biggest test for the proposal will come in the Senate, where many GOP lawmakers still remain skeptical or outright opposed to peeling away air traffic control from the FAA.

    “The [general aviation] community maintains serious reservations about the current proposal, and that causes concerns here in the Senate, which I share,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a pilot, said in a statement to The Hill. “It will be difficult for Congress to pass a bicameral, bipartisan proposal until all impacted stakeholders achieve consensus on the appropriate path forward.”

    The Senate Transportation Committee already approved a long-term FAA bill that keeps the country’s air navigation system in place. Transportation leaders said there wasn’t enough support on the panel for the spinoff idea despite Trump’s endorsement.

    That means that the upper and lower chambers would need to decide during conference negotiations whether to include the spinoff proposal, assuming it passes the House.

    But there are only 14 legislative days left before the August recess, while the House and Senate are only scheduled to be in session simultaneously for 12 days in September.

    At the same time, Congress will also be working to keep the government lights on, raise the debt ceiling and pass a healthcare reform bill.

    “The number of days we have before August break is somewhat limited, and the things we have to do are time-consuming,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Transportation Committee, told reporters before the July Fourth recess. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”