Reporting from Washington – The Federal Aviation Administration was forced into a partial shutdown Monday after Congress failed to temporarily extend its funding. The agency was ordered to furlough thousands of employees and freeze $2.5 billion in airport construction money.
The nation's air travel network remained unaffected, with air traffic controllers and other employees deemed “essential” ordered to work. But nearly 4,000 of the agency's 32,000 employees were put on abrupt unpaid leave.
“The fact that Congress can't work this out is exactly why the American people are fed up with Washington,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a conference call Monday.
In California, 206 FAA employees and $131 million in construction funds could be affected, including construction of air traffic control towers at Oakland International and Palm Springs airports. Officials at LAX and Long Beach airports said they would not be immediately affected because their finances allow them to continue projects and be reimbursed by the FAA later.
“We can up-front the projects now, but we can't do it in perpetuity,” said Long Beach Airport Director Mario Rodriguez.
The House passed a version of the funding authorization on Friday, adding two provisions to an otherwise routine extension. One would make it harder for airline and rail workers to unionize. The other sought to limit subsidies to 13 rural airports, including three that exceed $1,000 per passenger.
Three of those airports are in the home states of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Transportation Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
Senate Democrats accused the House of using the FAA as a political prop.
“I was appalled that the House went through on its dangerous threats last week to hold the entire FAA bill hostage to their politics,” Rockefeller said in a statement Monday. He called on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) to hold a conference meeting on the FAA bill by Wednesday.
But House leaders stood firm. “If the Senate cannot agree to a simple provision, which it approved earlier this year, then we don't need to convene a conference meeting,” Mica said in a statement.
Mica said the only way FAA employees would get back to work is for the Senate to pass the House-approved bill.
LaHood plans to meet with White House officials and congressional leaders this week, but there were no indications of progress.
The last long-term funding authorization for the FAA expired in 2007. Since then, congressional leaders have passed 20 separate stopgap funding measures while they work out details of a new aviation bill.
Until the matter is resolved, thousands of employees and construction workers will suffer, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said. “These are real people with families who do not deserve to be out of work during these tough economic times,” he said.
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