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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Heard in the Hallways: Are Dems Protecting FAA Patronage Plum?

President Bush may have nominated FAA Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgell to head the aviation agency, but his man may never take the post.

The nomination as FAA chief requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate, and that body has repeatedly put off hearings toward approving Sturgell for the job. A number of reasons have been rumored. Among them is that labor-friendly Democrats in the Senate are miffed at the agency stiffing the air traffic controllers’ union in contract negotiations, and Sturgell is paying the price for that.

One insider in Washington’s aviation community points to a more base school of thought: Democrats are confident they can wrest control of the White House from Republicans come the national election in November. Therefore, they are protecting every plum of political patronage that they can. The FAA administrator’s post is a choice one, this thinking holds, so Senate Democrats are likely to put off Sturgell’s nomination until it can be withdrawn and replaced by one of a person from their party.

Accept this scenario and there is another point against Sturgell (who as a retired U.S. Navy aviator, airline pilot, aviation lawyer, and staffer at the National Transportation Safety Board is arguably the best qualified candidate to head the FAA that Washington has seen in over a decade). That is this: the FAA administrator is confirmed to a five-year term. That tenure, set in law the early 1990s to reduce political meddling in the agency’s management, makes Democrats mindful that confirming Sturgell would take the FAA plum off the table for the new president’s entire first term. While some argue that the FAA chief, like all other political appointees, serves "at the pleasure of the president" despite the five-year term, Democrats see no reason to take on that argument if they can just avoid it by deferring action on Sturgell.

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