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KEENE: Debt spin more powerful than debt reality

Democrats fly false notion that GOP held up funding for FAA

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Just about everyone who lives and works in Washington knows it is all about spin. Substance matters to a few serious-minded wonks in Congress and perhaps even in the White House, but they are outnumbered by those who realize that in politics, perception almost always trumps reality. This knowledge has Democrats telling everyone they can find that the Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade the nation's bond rating is directly traceable to the presence and outlandish extremism of Tea Party Republicans. Democrats everywhere are labeling the Standard & Poor's action as "the Tea Party downgrade" to pin the blame on someone other than their fellow Democrats and to further demonize lawmakers who actually listen to their constituents.

It may even work, but it is a shameless undertaking. The constituents Democrats decry as unrealistic, stupid or even domestic terrorists were saying almost exactly what the ratings agencies were saying before the brouhaha about the debt ceiling. They were arguing that spending is out of control and that it has to be cut lest we end up on the scrap heap of history.

Then came the debate over whether Congress and the president can or should own up to reality or succumb to the inevitable outcome of kicking the can down the road for others to deal with later. The Republicans tried the best they could and, ultimately, took what they could get in the face of Democratic obstinacy, but it wasn't enough for either the Tea Partyers or S & P. The fight over the debt ceiling didn't result in the downgrade; what led to the downgrade was the deep-seated belief that the symbolism of a so-called compromise is reality and enough to fool S & P, which clearly demanded actual cuts.

It's the way Washington seems to work these days. Decisions are characterized as solving problems they don't even address and debates on substantive issues are painted by spin mongers as arguments about questions that aren't even at issue.

Thus, while everyone was focused on the debt-ceiling debate, the Senate refused to go along with a House vote to temporarily reauthorize spending for the Federal Aviation Administration, forcing a partial shutdown that affected thousands of government employees and contractors but had no discernible impact on air travel.

The FAA has been operating on some 20 temporary extensions since 2007, but this year Rep. John Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, decided to face some of the past issues that have prevented agreement. Chief among those issues was a $16 million per year program called Essential Air Service (EAS), originally designed to temporarily help rural airports that might have trouble keeping air service when the industry was deregulated in 1978.

The continued existence of EAS for more than 30 years is another example of the truth of Ronald Reagan's observation that the closest thing on Earth to immortality is a federal program. The EAS subsidies were to be phased out by 1988, yet it now costs taxpayers about $185 million a year in subsidies for travelers from 153 airports around the country.

Passengers flying out of Ely, Nev., receive a $3,500 per ticket subsidy and other small- and medium-sized communities are subsidized to a similar extent. What's more, many of the airports on the EAS list are within an hour or so of an airport not receiving subsidies, so most of the money goes to convenience rather than necessity.

To begin reform, Mr. Mica proposed in a temporary extension that would drop some 24 communities and urged a phase-out of the entire program. Exceptions would be made for Alaska and Hawaii in a regular reauthorization, which also includes a controversial labor provision. The Senate passed a different regular reauthorization bill, which included a phase-out of the same airports Mr. Mica wanted to eliminate from the list, but would not support the temporary extension - even though it didn't include the labor provision.

President Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada endorsed the temporary extension. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, held up the bill because a West Virginia airport was on the list.

The result was that Congress recessed without acting and FAA funding ended. Democrats pointed at Republicans for refusing a "clean" reauthorization and characterized it as a labor-provision fight that wasn't even in the temporary reauthorization. After much finger-pointing and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, charging that Republicans were holding a gun to the heads of the people to get their way, funding passed after a short shutdown.

What was not reported widely was the provision that allows Mr. LaHood to waive the phase-out for any airports he chooses. At the end of the day, passengers flying out of Ely, Nev., and Morgantown, W.Va., will continue to be subsidized and the taxpayer will lose.

David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a member of the board for the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.

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