By Stephanie Beasley
April 3 — Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) may not have the most extensive transportation record, but he is considered a “deal maker” and could take a more vested interest in maintaining robust transportation funding should he succeed Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as leader of Senate Democrats, industry advisers told Bloomberg BNA.
Schumer is widely considered the front-runner to take over after Reid retires in 2016.
The idea of having Schumer at the helm of Democratic leadership is exciting to the drone industry, according to one trade group that expects Schumer would continue to take a balanced approach to drone innovation.
Jay Tannon, of counsel at DLA Piper, said that although he wouldn't call Schumer “super active” on transportation issues, the fact that he is from a heavily populated and multimodal district could make him a strong advocate for transportation funding issues.
“Being from New York rather than Nevada, I think he'll be much more interested in robust funding,” Tannon told Bloomberg BNA on April 1.
Schumer has in the past advocated for higher funding levels for public transportation, including high-speed and intercity passenger rail.
Schumer also is one of the main supporters in the Senate of equal tax benefits for users of mass transit and parking. The tax extender package signed by President Obama in late 2014 retroactively applied parity for transit and parking benefits through the end of 2014. However, Congress will need to revisit the issue by the end of this year if it is to extend those benefits ahead of the 2016 filing season.
Tannon said that while Schumer is as partisan as Reid, he is considered more of a deal maker—someone who can bring both sides of the aisle to the table and compromise.
Notably, Schumer is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is currently working to identify a funding mechanism to replenish the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) that supports federal surface transportation programs. The current authorization law for the programs expires May 31 and the Department of Transportation expects the HTF will begin running out of money in July.
Schumer also has been vocal about airport security and aviation issues.
After federal law enforcement agents broke a gun-smuggling ring last December, the lawmaker called for the Transportation Security Administration to adopt more security measures domestically, like requiring airline and airport employees be screened each day before work.
He was also the author of a 2011 amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation that would have made it a federal crime to misuse images recorded from TSA body scanners. The measure wasn't included in the FAA reauthorization bill signed into law in 2012.
Further, Schumer has been critical of the FAA's rulemaking for unmanned aircraft systems UAS), or drones, saying the agency may have been too restrictive in a draft rule for commercial use of small UAS released in February.
In particular, he requested the FAA reconsider its proposal to limit commercial flights to the operator's “line of sight”.
Schumer has called on the FAA and the Commerce Department to develop privacy guidelines for drone use. His office said in a 2014 press release that while there were “innumerable benefits to this technology, there are also consequences that create privacy and safety concerns for the general public.”
The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said it plans to begin multistakeholder meetings to develop voluntary privacy guidelines for commercial and private drone use this spring.
Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, said Schumer's possible ascension to become the top Senate Democrat is “exciting” for the drone industry.
The coalition's membership includes key stakeholders, like Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and Sky-Futures.
“Anytime you have someone in leadership that has a strong interest in your issue, that's good,” Drobac said. “His comments really suggest that he understands the technology and the impact it will have on the economy.”
Drobac said he believes Schumer brings a “balanced approach” to issues like drone safety, privacy and the use of geo-fencing technology that includes GPS, software and firmware.
Schumer's office has also been instrumental in helping drone companies navigate FAA's exemption process for commercial drone use, said Jon Ollwerther, vice-president of marketing and operations at AeroCine. The New York City -based aerial cinematography company received a Section 333 exemption from the FAA on Jan. 23.
Ollwerther said Schumer's office helped facilitate discussions between the company and the FAA.
“He and his office have helped companies to be exempt when they're doing it safely,” Ollwerther told Bloomberg BNA April 1. “I think Sen. Schumer is doing a good job of speaking with us in the community.”
One very “smart” strategy Schumer's office has employed over the years is to work closely with the other senator from New York, said Jack Schenendorf, former chief of staff to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and now of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP.
Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have banded together on a number of issues, including drone safety.
“His office is a very effective office and what I think is very smart is he works very closely with the other senator from New York so that there is only one request from New York,” Schenendorf said.
He further noted Schumer's continued support of JetBlue Airlines, which the lawmaker has helped to expand to airports throughout the state of New York.
“When you see someone of his political capabilities taking the helm, you feel good that he is going to do something on aviation,” Schenendorf told Bloomberg BNA.
He added that Schumer is seen by Hill watchers as the kind of person that likes to get things done.
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