Congress, a wag once said, is "a body of men brought together to vote on unpopular laws."
That may be a harsh definition of the U.S. Congress, but sometimes, one can only wonder what possessed legislators to lurch off in strange directions. So, it was with the September findings of the joint House/Senate Conference Committee when debate over the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) FY00 budget submission turned to the agency’s relationship with RTCA Inc.
Calling the not-for-profit organization the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics—a name discontinued back in 1991—the Conference Committee noted that "although originally tasked to provide advice on aviation ‘black box’ technical requirements, RTCA has recently been chartered by FAA to act more broadly, to develop industry consensus and implementation plans for a variety of agency programs, including Free Flight phases one and two, equipment requirements for the future national airspace system, and overall reform of the agency’s certification process."
Where, you may ask, is the problem?
To the committee, "...such a relationship raises questions about proper government control and independence," particularly in view of the fact that "RTCA’s task forces make technical recommendations...and the agency accepts those recommendations with few or no changes." It added that "this collaborative network of agency and industry officials appears to be unusual for a federal advisory committee."
The joint committee’s report concluded that FAA funding of RTCA should be cut by $135,000, and that the agency be directed not to use RTCA for new "consensus-building" activities in FY00, nor expand those currently underway. It also directed the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General to "conduct an investigation of the RTCA/FAA relationship and a comparison of that relationship to other federal advisory committees."
Interestingly, while the congressional committee makes frequent references to the "consensus building" in which RTCA takes justifiable pride, there are no indications that prior to writing its report, Congress undertook its own consensus within the aviation community of RTCA’s value. Had it done so, it would have discovered that worldwide, RTCA is held in the highest esteem and would qualify as an organization that, if it did not exist, would have to be created.
No other government agency has access to the collective knowledge of the thousands of volunteer experts—often competitors sitting side by side—who have labored long in RTCA’s special committees and task forces to ensure that the public benefits from the safest, most reliable, and most efficient avionics technology available. And the House/Senate Committee’s unstated, but perhaps implied, notion that this work could be done by any other single entity is absurd.
Equally absurd is the possible parallel implication that RTCA may, upon investigation, turn out to be a sinister industrial cabal bent on molding FAA’s rulemaking process.
With an annual budget of about $1.3 million, of which FAA typically contributes around $280,000, with the balance coming from memberships, contributions and document sales, the $135,000 cut in FAA funding will not be crippling to RTCA. But it will curtail a number of activities.
Much more serious is the committee’s direction that FAA may not use RTCA during FY00. For 12 months, nothing will happen. No new concepts to ease aviation congestion will be discussed. No innovative new ideas will be thrashed out. No new technologies will be examined. And no new benefits will accrue to the traveling public.
Is this really what the House/Senate Conference Committee wanted? If Congress truly wants to get together to vote on an unpopular (and unwise) law, then the committee could hardly have made a better selection.
Now we ask, what possessed Congress to question this relationship? Send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org.