As the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration drags on, about 40 inspectors are working without pay to ensure that the safety of the flying public isn’t compromised, Transportation Department officials said on Monday. Once FAA is back up and running, those employees will be compensated, but the status of back pay for another 4,000 furloughed FAA employees is still unclear. It will be up to Congress to make them whole.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood begged lawmakers not to go home at the end of this week without at least extending the funding for FAA until the major differences on a longer-term bill have been resolved. “Do not go on your vacations until this issue is settled,” he said. “Before you go on your vacations -- your family vacations, your personal time -- think about the 4,000 FAA workers, the 70,000 construction workers who are in the middle of their work season.”
The FAA entered a partial shutdown at midnight on Friday, July 22, after lawmakers failed to provide stopgap funding for the agency that would have lasted until mid-September. Air-traffic controllers and other personnel dedicated to making air traffic flow safely are all on the job and will remain on the job, LaHood insisted. All airport-improvement projects and development of GPS-based “NextGen” air-routing technology have been put on hold. Congress has temporarily extended FAA’s funding 20 times since the law expired in 2007.
The initial congressional squabble over the 21st FAA stopgap was over subsidies to rural airports, but it has since ballooned into a shouting match over how and when the House and Senate will hammer out their differences over a longer-term bill. A key sticking point to the broader negotiations is a labor provision, which Republicans are determined to keep and President Obama has threatened to veto, that would make it more difficult for aviation and rail workers to unionize.
Meanwhile, LaHood worked the phones over the weekend to get the attention of House and Senate leaders to take up and pass a stopgap bill before they go on a monthlong recess this month. LaHood seems to have made progress on that front, thanks to a Sunday-night deal that broke the debt-ceiling impasse. “I think they’re focusing on this like a laser beam now, given the fact that the deficit issue has been solved and there will be a vote on that,” LaHood said of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin.
LaHood also has been negotiating directly with House Speaker John Boehner’s office to figure out a way to bridge the differences, at least in the short term. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has been the lead Republican in the FAA talks throughout this year, but the situation may have escalated to higher levels since the partial shutdown.
Furloughed employees, meanwhile, are worried about their own bank accounts. In the past when the government has shut down, Congress has authorized back pay for workers who were benched. But these tight budget situations might make that difficult. “In this environment, all bets are off. I have no faith that regardless of how long this action, this furlough goes on, that any of our people are going to be compensated for that when it’s all said and done. And if they aren’t, it’s probably the first time in history that they weren’t,” said Mike MacDonald, who represents about 1,000 of the furloughed FAA employees for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.