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FAA Cleared for Takeoff

The U.S. Senate is expected to approve a bill this morning written by the House that will resume operations at the Federal Aviation Administration — at least until Sep. 16, reports the New York Times’ Edward Wyatt. At issue in the FAA’s shutdown is a Congressional dispute over whether the agency should give subsidies so rural airports get commercial airline service. The broader issue is Congress’s astonishing indifference about a functioning federal agency.

Preoccupied with the federal debt ceiling and their own August vacations, members of Congress didn’t authorize the money to keep the FAA going, resulting in a 13-day shutdown. The majority Republican House had passed a bill that cut $16.5 million in subsidies to rural airports — and the majority Democrat Senate wouldn’t agree to these cuts. According to the Times, there was a “breakthrough” yesterday, when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he has the authority to issue waivers that would effectively postpone any cuts in the House bill.

Why LaHood waited until yesterday to play this card is left unexplained. The FAA dispute over $16.5 million resulted in a shutdown that cost the federal government more than $350 million in unpaid taxes from airline tickets. It also left 4,000 employees out of work and postponed work on projects like expansions at O’Hare in Chicago and at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Also, the temporary resolution does not resolve the more contentious, partisan issue on rules governing the ability of airline workers to unionize.

It is easy and popular to bash Congress, but in this FAA dispute, it’s justified. This is my last blog at Understanding Government as the site makes a transition to Government in My Backyard or GIMBY. After more than three years of blogging it still amazes me what disregard the legislative body has for the actual operations of government. Bills that govern money for roads and public transit (the Surface Transportation bill, which expired in 2009) and schools (No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007) are simply not reauthorized, leaving entire federal agencies — and thousands of federal employees — guessing as to the purpose of their work. The leadership of federal agencies that manage billions of dollars like the General Services Administration can be held up for a year, because a Senator throws a fit. Even mighty, high-priority agencies like the Defense Department are left guessing. Who knows what will be cut from the Pentagon after the debt ceiling agreement?

Congress — and the President — are rightfully bashed for prioritizing a relatively arbitrary and certainly long-term matter like the national deficit over the nation’s lingering unemployment crisis. But the majority of elected officials in Washington seem insensitive to the job concerns and overall functioning of the federal government itself — much less the overall American economy. I’ve tried to communicate in this blog how matters in Washington have a real impact on people’s daily lives. But it sometimes feels like elected officials themselves don’t realize their position’s consequence.

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