Legislative Issues: Stop-and-Go Funding
(Updated May 15, 2018)
- The most serious issue currently facing us is the FAA’s unstable, unpredictable funding stream, which jeopardizes the safety, efficiency, and capacity of the National Airspace System. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (H.R. 4), which passed the House on April 27, would authorize the FAA through FY 2023 and would help stabilize this funding stream. So far, the Senate has not yet acted on an FAA reauthorization bill.
- The remaining barriers to a stable, predictable funding stream are the lack of regular order in the appropriations process and continued dependence on continuing resolutions (CR), government shutdowns (real or threatened), and the returning threat of sequestration in 2020 and 2021.
- Another potential threat to stable, predictable funding is coming from proposed spending cuts known as “rescissions.” On May 9, the Trump Administration proposed a sweeping $15.4 billion package of spending cuts that slices across 10 federal departments.
HOW THIS ISSUE AFFECTS NATCA MEMBERS
Stop-and-go funding leads to a more stressful, less productive work environment for aviation safety professionals in a number of ways. Stop-and-go funding related to gaps in funding or FAA authorization can result in government-wide and/or partial shutdowns. These shutdowns result in unpaid furloughs and/or uncertainty about when, or if, excepted members will be paid for continuing to perform their job duties. The lack of a stable, predictable funding stream for the FAA can also lead to delays in the implementation of updated technology, delays to the repair of current equipment, and delay in hiring and training the next generation of controllers and aviation safety professionals.
For years, the FAA has faced an unstable, unpredictable funding stream with interruptions that have negatively affected all aspects of the Agency. NATCA believes that this is the most serious challenge facing the FAA and our National Airspace System (NAS) today.
The last time that a long-term FAA reauthorization was signed into law was 2012. This legislation, which is the authorizing measure that establishes, continues, or modifies FAA programs and activities, was delayed more than five years and faced 23 short-term extensions and a partial FAA shutdown before finally being signed into law in February 2012. Today, the FAA is currently operating on its fifth short-term extension since the 2012 legislation expired. The current extension expires on September 30, 2018.
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (H.R. 4), by a vote of 393 to 13. H.R. 4 is a long-term, bipartisan bill that authorizes the FAA through fiscal year (FY) 2023, as well as the collection and expenditure of taxes for the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. As of printing, the Senate has not yet acted on FAA reauthorization legislation. In order to avoid a lapse in authorization on September 30, the Senate must either take up H.R. 4 or pass its own FAA reauthorization bill, which would have to be “conferenced” with H.R. 4 to resolve any differences before being signed into law by the president. Otherwise, the FAA will need another short-term extension or it will go into a partial shutdown. After careful review and consideration, NATCA supports H.R. 4.
Even if long-term FAA reauthorization legislation such as H.R. 4 is signed into law, the FAA’s funding stream has been negatively affected by the lack of regular order in the funding process. The last time all appropriations bills were enacted by the start of the new fiscal year was in 1996. A stand-alone Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations bill has not been enacted since 2006. Over the past two decades, Congress has become reliant on temporary, short-term funding measures called continuing resolutions (CRs) and, less frequently, omnibus spending packages (funding bills that combine multiple appropriations bills together) or some combination of the two. On March 23, Congress avoided its third federal government shutdown in two months when it passed an omnibus spending package that funds the government through September 30, 2018. An extension of FAA authorization until September 30, 2018 was attached to the omnibus. Prior to that, Congress was on its fifth consecutive CR.
Despite some recent progress, the lack of a stable and predictable funding stream already has caused damage, some of which is irreversible. Stop-and-go funding, and specifically CRs, make planning for long-term improvement and modernization projects difficult. Stopping and restarting also makes modernization projects more expensive. Some projects may need to begin again. For instance, the April 2013 furloughs caused delays to modernization projects like En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) that cost $6 million per month because of the delay.
Although Congress removed the threat of sequestration for the next two fiscal years when it passed the omnibus spending bill on March 23, it is scheduled to return in FY 2020 and 2021 unless Congress takes action. As a result of sequestration cuts in 2013, preventative maintenance has been halted, and engineers must contend with a “fix-on-fail” policy, requiring that they wait until equipment actually breaks before replacing it. This creates an obvious safety concern and may also result in air traffic delays.
Furthermore, the sequestration-related furloughs of April 2013 caused severe delays. During the week of April 21-27, 2013, delays nearly tripled at our nation’s airports, from 5,103 delays to 13,694. These cuts are problematic and will return in 2020 unless Congress finds a way to end sequestration. Until then, the NAS remains at risk of falling behind on safety, efficiency, and capacity.
Another potential threat to funding stability is a recent package of spending cuts proposed by the Administration, known as “rescissions.” On May 9, the Trump Administration proposed a sweeping $15.4 billion package of spending cuts that slices across 10 federal departments. The request now goes to the House Appropriations Committee, which will have 25 calendar days to craft its own bill before other House members can act on their own to bring up rescissions legislation. If the House passes a bill, it would then be considered by the Senate where rescissions bills require only a simple majority for passage. Although the FAA and our members are not being targeted at this time, NATCA will remain vigilant and continue to advocate for full funding for FAA Operations and for all issues critical to our membership.
The FAA needs a stable, predictable funding stream. Without long-term authorization and long-term funding, we face continued funding uncertainty, and the NAS is in jeopardy of falling behind on safety, efficiency, and capacity. As Congress works to provide long-term reauthorization for the FAA and address the problem of stop-and-go funding, it is important that all stakeholders within the NAS work together to ensure that the United States remains the world leader in aviation.
Below are key examples of stop-and-go funding and how each negatively affected the NAS and our workforce.
2011 PARTIAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
Prior to February 2012, the FAA Reauthorization Act (the authorizing measure that establishes, continues, or modifies FAA programs and activities) was delayed over five years and faced 23 short-term extensions before finally being signed into law in February 2012. When an agreement could not be reached on the 21st extension, the FAA was partially shut down for two weeks during the summer of 2011, which cost the government nearly $30 million a day because the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (aviation trust fund) was not authorized and the FAA could not collect taxes. FAA employees were not paid for a significant period of time. Although Congress later restored the employees’ lost pay, those aviation safety professionals experienced funding uncertainty at a personal level, which resulted in low morale and a loss of confidence in the funding system.
2013 SEQUESTRATION CUTS
Sequestration is the result of a congressional money-saving approach to cut the federal budget across the board. It cut nearly $493 million from the FAA’s Operations & Maintenance budget without regard for the safety or efficiency of the NAS. The law has had a negative effect on the NAS. For example, delayed preventative maintenance means engineers and technicians operate on a “fix-on-fail” policy, forcing them to wait until equipment breaks before replacing it. Until Congress finds a way to resolve sequestration, modify the FAA’s funding stream, or simply exempt the FAA from this draconian fiscal policy, the NAS is in jeopardy of falling behind on safety, efficiency, and capacity.
2013 SEQUESTRATION FURLOUGHS AND THREATENED TOWER CLOSURES
In April 2013, sequestration forced the FAA to furlough every employee, including air traffic controllers, and to consider closing towers in order to achieve the mandated spending cuts. These furloughs led to significant delays: during the week of April 21-27, 2013, delays jumped to 13,694, nearly triple the 5,103 delays in the same week of 2012 and the 5,110 delays in 2014. The FAA also threatened to simply close many low-level towers in order to comply with sequestration. NATCA immediately focused on ending the furloughs and a week after the furloughs began, Congress acted by passing the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which allowed the Secretary of Transportation to transfer $253 million from other FAA accounts to the FAA’s operations account in order to prevent reduced operations and reduced staffing of the FAA for the remainder of the fiscal year.
2013 FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
By September 2013, the end of FY 2013, Congress still had not passed appropriations bills to fund the government for FY 2014. On October 1, the government was forced to shut down, shuttering much of the FAA along with it, which resulted in more furloughs to FAA employees. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that these furloughs cost the government $2.5 billion total.
2018 GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWNS
In early 2018, Congress failed — on two separate occasions — to pass CRs and the government was shut down for three days between January 20-22, and then again on February 9. On March 23, Congress narrowly avoided its third federal government shutdown in a two-month period when it passed an omnibus spending package that funds the government and also extends FAA authorization through September 30, 2018. Prior to that, Congress was on its fifth consecutive CR and fifth consecutive extension to FAA authorization.
POLITICAL CRISES CAUSING THREATS OF A SHUTDOWN
Federal employees, including those employed by the FAA, are all negatively affected when political crises, real or manufactured, threaten an agency shutdown, even when a shutdown is averted at the last minute. This affects employee morale and the Agency’s ability to plan for long-term projects. Due to contentious budget debates, the government has frequently been on the brink of a shutdown for the past several years.