- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Eager to avert a repeat of last summer’s partial shutdown of some airport programs, Congress was poised late Tuesday to sign off on a four-year Federal Aviation Administration funding deal — even though the proposal is opposed by organized labor.

The compromise, which would authorize almost $16 billion annually to the FAA through fiscal year 2015, also calls for increasing aviation safety measures, modernizing the nation’s aging air traffic control system and requiring the FAA to develop a new runway safety plan.

“This measure is key to advancing the nearly 8 percent of our nation’s economy impacted by the aviation industry,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican.

Since 2007, Congress has passed 23 temporary funding extensions to keep the FAA running as disputes over spending, labor rules, safety issues and cross-country airline routes have held up a long-term deal.

The debate got so heated last summer that lawmakers missed a July deadline to extend FAA funding, forcing the agency to temporarily issue stop-work orders for more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide and furlough about 4,000 agency employees.

At the heart of the debate has been a 2010 federal rule that made it easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize — allowing recognition of a union chapter if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots approve organizing. The previous rule required a majority of the entire work force to favor unionizing, which meant workers choosing not to vote were effectively counted as “no” votes.

Republicans and airlines have pressed to overturn the rule in the FAA funding measure, saying it will lead to drawn-out labor disputes that could stifle commerce and cause passenger delays. Democrats and organized labor countered that the GOP push unfairly targets unions and has no place in an aviation funding bill.

The compromise bill keeps the voting rule but increases hurdles for a union to hold an election — requiring unions to collect signatures from 50 percent of workers to indicate their support before an election can be held.

Shane Larson, legislative director with the Communication Workers of America, called the deal a “compromise in name only” that would reward “House Republicans’ union-busting and intransigence, while harming workers and labor law.”

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle “sacrificed some strongly held policy positions on labor issues.”“The compromises we have made will move our aviation system forward,” he said.

A bipartisan committee of negotiators from both congressional chambers had until Tuesday night to sign the compromise bill, with few if any lawmakers expected to dissent. The measure then would be sent to the full House and Senate for votes, where passage is expected.

The bill calls for easing decades-old restrictions on long-haul flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Western senators from both parties long have pushed to have restrictions on nonstop flights between the airport and their home states loosened, saying the rules — instituted years ago to spur travel at the newer Washington Dulles International Airport — are outdated and inconvenient.

The bill also calls for $190 million annual annually through 2015 to subsidize airline service to small rural airports.