House Subcommittee on Aviation Ranking Member Garret Graves, from Louisiana's 6th District. (AVI screenshot/Garret Graves office)
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Aviation, is concerned that a proposal to keep the FAA fully funded during any future government shutdowns would open up a can of worms.
The Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2019, which was put forward last week by Democratic leadership from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation, would allow the FAA to draw from the $6 billion Airport and Airway Trust Fund to subsidize itself instead of requiring Congressional appropriations during a shutdown. It has overwhelming support from the aviation industry.
Graves, the ranking member of the Aviation Subcommittee, told Avionics International that he supports the FAA and wants it to stay running, but he has two chief concerns with the bill: He thinks it makes it easier to shut the government down, and he sees merit to the argument that if the FAA gets special dispensation, other agencies should, too. Where is the line drawn?
"I haven’t made a final decision where we’re going to be on the bill," he said about his support. "I hesitate to come in and make it easy to for us have a shutdown. I think that the right solution is to prevent shutdowns by making the pain come in the folks that are actually responsible for failing to come to a compromise."
During last week's hearing on the effects of the shutdown in the aviation industry, many of Graves' Republican colleagues brought up the issue of Congressmembers continuing to receive their $174,000 salary during the shutdown while federal employees go without pay. Rep. Paul Mitchell, (R-Mich.) said that he would support the bill if and only if the law were changed so that Congress did not receive pay during shutdowns. Graves said such a change would make him more likely to support the bill as well, though he did not commit.
"That is one of the ideas that we’re working on, and that would certainly push me into the 'lean yes' column in the event that you put the penalties on Congress," he said.
It isn't only Republicans supporting that idea, though. Democrats voiced support as well, with bills to that effect popping up from both sides of the aisle. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), Rep Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have both put forth bills and Mitchell's fellow Michigander, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) put one forward just last week.
But there is opposition in Congress to the idea that members should willingly sacrificing their pay, such as by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).
"It was the president’s decision to take hostages," Lynch said of the most recent shutdown during last week's hearing. "That’s what we objected to, and to suggest that a member of Congress should give up their pay because the president decided to take hostages? Give me a break...I advise my colleagues, on the Democratic side: Take your pay, keep fighting. That’s the attitude that Democrats should have. Any Democrat that is willing to negotiate with somebody who is willing to take hostages should be disgraced."
During the 35-day shutdown that began in December, more than 100 members of Congress, from both major parties (and one Independent) pledged to reject their pay. Graves was one, but he suggested that the gesture was not genuine from all corners.
"I don’t think its just coincidence that you saw the last shutdown end just before Congress’ payday — at least the House of Representatives’ payday," he said. "You had a number of members that sent in those pledges maybe under pressure from their constituents and that reality was about to set in."
For that reason, he's hesitant to make a shutdown less painful to enter by protecting the FAA without making it more painful for Congress to enact one by punishing them financially.
"I think that we’ve got to be really careful about making it easy to have a shutdown," he said. "I think that the pressure really needs to be on Congress. I think that its important that as we move forward on legislative solutions here, as was mentioned by members on both sides of the aisle during the hearing that we had this week, Taking pay away from members of Congress and senior members of administration that are failing to do their job, not penalizing the innocent like federal employees.
"Put the pressure, put the penalties on folks that deserve it. There was a member that suggested that we make members of Congress show up to work every single day, seven days per week, during the shutdown — I agree. I don't think we should have been able to go home for the Christmas holidays during the shutdown. Make people stay there, make them work, make them work this out and come to a solution and do their job."
Even if that issue is worked out, though, Graves sees potential trouble as the bill moves out of the committee and into the larger debate floor.
"The [Transportation and Infrastructure] Committee has jurisdiction over a certain group of agencies, so all of a sudden this goes to the floor, so why would you not just marry it up — if you’re on the judiciary committee, you’d say wait a minute, we need to add in the FBI, we need to add in the [law enforcement agencies]," he said. "I just think the bill gets really big really fast, and I just don’t know how you can justify just picking a handful of agencies while leaving the others out."
Supporters of the FAA funding bill point out that the FAA's ability to sustain itself on the AATF makes it inherently different; mixed with the critical position aviation occupies in American society, the agency deserves special consideration.
"That’s not really fair," Graves said. "Because you have some agencies, their work inherently derives revenue, while others don’t. That doesn’t mean that some are more important. In this case, you’re putting FAA employees above federal law enforcement. And I'm not sure that that’s really a fair assessment to pick and chose which federal employees get paid and which ones don’t."
To succeed in the wider House of Representatives and ultimately the Senate, the bill will need support, but Congressmen from other committees may see it Graves' way — the FAA is widely considered to be important, but not necessarily head-and-shoulders above any other agency, so other Congressman may try to get similar deals for their own favored groups in exchange for the FAA.
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said during the hearing that he would ultimately like to see all federal agencies receive similar funding protection, but Graves doesn't think that is a good idea.
"I don’t think it's the best solution," he said. "We should not make shutdowns an easy option or an easy choice."
That's the danger of bundling in any other agencies with the FAA. The more groups that are protected from furlough in the event of a shutdown, the less there is to deter lawmakers from shutting the government down. Graves says that a shutdown is a failure of Congress, so the penalties need to stay high to keep it from happening.
While markups pose a danger to what is currently only a three-page bill, Graves did say he could see it having success — at least in the House of Representatives.
"I don’t know that I’d call it strong, but it certainly does have bipartisan support," he said. "I think you could possibly get it out of the House if you add the Congressional penalties to it, but I don’t know that you get it out of the Senate."
Given that the bill was sponsored by Democrats, it has a leg up in the Democrat-controlled House, but getting it passed by the Republican-majority Senate or signed by President Trump — who may see it as a referendum on the shutdown that he helmed — could prove difficult.