Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the FAA bill. On Friday, authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration was allowed to expire. Four thousand workers were placed on furlough. The airport and airways trust fund now lacks the authority to collect user fees that fund air traffic services, airport maintenance, and other things that Americans rely on.
Let's be clear. This should not have happened. It happened because a few Members of the other body made a conscious choice to negotiate in bad faith. Clear and simple.
Let me recap it. Under the able leadership of Senator Rockefeller, the Senate again passed our long-term FAA authorization in February, with a bipartisan vote of 87 to 8. Later, the House passed its bill, but largely along party lines.
In April, the Senate named conferees to negotiate a final bill. However, our friends in the House have yet to appoint conferees to join us at the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, since 2007, we have passed 20 extensions to allow this program to continue operating while we work to negotiate a long-term solution. Not a single one of those extensions has been met with controversy--not one.
However, as we undertook what should have been the latest clean extension, the House unexpectedly eliminated 13 rural airports that rely on Essential Air Service just days before the authorization expired. The House refused to reconsider and chose instead to shut down the Federal Aviation Administration.
The House seeks to save approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of overall aviation spending by attacking essential air services. I agree with anyone who wants to control Federal spending and invest in real priorities--we all do--but it simply doesn't make sense to focus on saving fractions of pennies on the dollar instead of coming to the negotiating table to hammer out long-term solutions.
At the same time, the House rejected an opportunity to protect our troops from exorbitant baggage fees. Congressman Nick Rahall introduced an amendment to the House extension that would have prohibited air carriers from charging a baggage fee for members of the Armed Forces while traveling on official military duty, especially those checking four or fewer bags. In one instance, an airline reportedly socked a poor servicemember with a baggage fee of $3,000. Regrettably, the House rejected this offer to protect our troops, and the rejection was on a party-line vote. Those of us negotiating in good faith here in the Senate were left scratching our heads. The House would reject a clean extension to save a mere one-tenth of 1 percent by attacking rural jobs and commerce, but it would reject an opportunity to protect our troops from getting gouged by baggage fees on the same bill. It doesn't make sense.
Later, we learned through the press that the House's erratic strategy had apparently nothing to do with potential cost savings at all, but, instead, these antics were about rulemaking by the National Mediation Board. This is a labor issue that has nothing to do with essential air service and nothing to do with the daily operations of the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which could be operating right now under a clean extension. This labor issue should be worked out in a conference--the conference committee we can't have because the House has yet to name conferees.
One of the rural communities the House Members chose to cut down as a political pawn is Glendive, MT. Glendive is growing in the energy sector. It is in the Bakken formation, with lots of oil and gas wells drilled, and it is a huge potential new energy source. Energy companies from Texas and Louisiana are rapidly sending personnel up to Glendive, and hotels in the area are running at near-full occupancy year-round. We are working hard to quickly build housing and infrastructure in order to capitalize on this great opportunity to create much needed jobs. Today, unemployment in Glendive is half the national average. But Glendive is located 230 miles from any larger airport. Glendive needs essential air service to maintain its lifeline to national commerce and continue to grow and create jobs.
We can discuss at length the merits of essential air service, the promise made to rural America, and the lifeline it provides to towns such as Glendive. In fact, this is a conversation we should have. Any changes should be made as part of thoughtful and transparent discussion, with input from the folks on the ground who are most affected. Again, that is precisely what conference negotiations are for--yet, again, negotiations we can't hold. Why? Because the House has yet to name its conferees.
The House antics have halted as much as $2.5 billion in airport funding--funding that employs as many as 87,000 workers on construction projects around the country. At Glacier International Airport in Kalispell, MT, much needed upgrades to the taxiway are now on hold indefinitely, and so are the much needed construction jobs this project would support.
Even more troubling, 4,000 mothers and fathers and breadwinners are now out of work. These are folks such as Kristina Richardson, an administrative support specialist at Billings Logan International Airport's air traffic control tower. Over the weekend, Kristina wasn't able to go grocery shopping. She didn't know if she could count on her next paycheck to buy food and pay her bills. Kristina described the pit in her stomach when she went in to clean off her desk and shut down her computer. Kristina told my office she worried about who would help the people she had been working with. She described the pride and fulfillment that comes from working and the blow that comes when that is taken away.
Luckily, Kristina was told on Tuesday she would be able to return to work. But 4,000 other folks across the country haven't been so lucky. Like most Montanans, Kristina is one tough lady, and she understands the vital importance of essential air service to rural communities. Even when she thought she had been furloughed, she hung in there. She contacted my office to voice her support for a clean FAA extension that rejects arbitrary cuts to rural communities.
I am increasingly concerned about the nature of our political discourse. Lately, it seems some folks are more focused on making 30-second sound bites than making laws. What happened with the FAA bill is an example of this misguided focus. Whatever the House's true reason for suspending 4,000-plus jobs and halting construction to improve airport safety, it just wasn't right.
Still, I know we can do good things around here when we work together, and I hold out the hope that we will return our focus to what is important and start getting work done, and it is not just here but on debt extension and a lot of major matters around here. But in the meantime, we need to fix this mess. This is easier to fix--much easier.
Along with Senator Rockefeller, I introduced a clean FAA extension that would put 4,000 employees back to work, let us start construction projects around the country to create jobs and improve the safety of our airports, and continue to fund the trust fund. Then together we can continue working on a longer term solution. I urge my colleagues to support a clean extension.
Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The clerk will call the roll.
The bill clerk proceeded to call the roll.
The Senator from New Mexico.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.
Without objection, it is so ordered.
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