Shuster Prioritizes Infrastructure as Air Traffic Plan Lingers

By Shaun Courtney

Infrastructure legislation could overtake a controversial proposal to spin off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration as a priority in 2018, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman told Bloomberg Government in a Dec. 14 interview.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said any infrastructure bill will need broad bipartisan support and that it would be a “game-day decision” if his air traffic control proposal would be included.

“I want to bring votes to the table. I don’t want to take them,” Shuster said.

The air traffic control proposal, part of the House’s committee-approved FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 2997), faces strong Democratic opposition and enough Republican “no” votes to keep the bill from the floor. The proposal has had the backing of the trade group Airlines for America and member companies including American Airlines Group, United Continental Holdings Inc., and Southwest Airlines Co.

The FAA’s authorization runs through March 31, leaving Shuster little time to continue building support for his air traffic control provision while also gathering the bipartisan support he believes an infrastructure bill needs.

Neither Shuster nor his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), have any enthusiasm for another short-term FAA extension like the one passed in September.

“March 31 is one way or the other: extension, which I don’t like, or we do something. But look, I’m not giving up anything right now,” Shuster said.

Bipartisan Support?

Shuster said he hasn’t decided whether to tack his air traffic proposal onto the infrastructure bill, noting that he wants a wide margin of support among Democrats and Republicans.

“Hopefully we’re going to do a big, broad infrastructure bill,” Shuster said. “The broader the support is, the broader the bipartisan support is, the easier it is to move a bill.”

Air traffic control could cost him votes, he noted. Shuster has been trying to bring his FAA bill with the air traffic proposal for a vote since the committee approved it in June, but several scheduled votes were canceled. He said he fundamentally believes in the air traffic proposal, which would shift some 30,000 government employees from the public payroll to a non-governmental organization. The new entity would be overseen by a board composed of representatives from labor, industry and other aviation sectors.

“My biggest surprise is that I’ve got Republicans on my side—my guys, my gals—saying no to this,” Shuster said.

Republicans would not be his only problem.

“If he rolls [air traffic control] into the [infrastructure] bill, he’s going to lose 90 percent of the Democrats,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the transportation panel, told Bloomberg Government Dec. 14.

‘Fish or Cut Bait’

As much as Shuster has been working to win support for what he touts as a necessary reform, DeFazio has been working to oppose the provision. In an earlier interview, DeFazio joked that he was following Shuster around the House floor trying to talk fellow Democrats out of throwing support behind the air traffic control provision.

DeFazio said he doubts the coming months will gain Shuster more supporters.

“If the votes aren’t there after six months of intensive lobbying, I don’t see how they are going to be there by March 31,” DeFazio said.

If the Senate’s committee-approved FAA reauthorization bill (S. 1405) advances to that chamber’s floor in the coming months, it could force Shuster’s hand in the House, DeFazio said.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Thune told Bloomberg Government Dec. 12 that he was open to dropping his own contentious pilot-training provision from the FAA reauthorization so the measure can move to the floor for debate and a vote in the new year.

Thune has wanted to give House members time to “socialize” the idea of an air traffic control spinoff, but at some point they will have to “fish or cut bait,” he said.

DeFazio shared that sentiment.

“If [Shuster is] never going to get the votes it would be an incredible disservice to the manufacturers and other commercial and aviation interests to not pass an FAA bill which is agreed upon in every aspect except for privatization of [air traffic control],” he said.

Now What?

Shuster is readying himself for a push on infrastructure, keeping an eye out for a chance to move his air traffic control proposal.

Is an FAA bill without his spinoff on the table?

“Not at this point. At this point what is on the table is let’s do an infrastructure bill,” he said. “As we move down we’ll figure out what comes, what goes, what stays, what leaves.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com

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