Another Standoff in Congress Furloughs 60 Union Workers at Oakland Airport; Halts Construction

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan at a press conference Aug. 2 at Oakland International Airport urging Congress to reauthorize an FAA program needed to finish construction upgrades to the facility. Sixty union members have been furloughed since July 23. (PHOTO: Port of Oakland)

Just as angry Americans put away bad thoughts stemming from extreme gridlock in Washington, another looming controversy with debt ceiling overtones is gaining more attention just as the capitol closes for its August recess.

When the Senate failed Monday night to renew the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to tax ticket purchases with some proceeds going toward subsidizing flights from rural airports and modernization projects, the inaction risks exacerbating a two-week standoff between the FAA and fiscally conservatives Republicans leaving over 4,000 furloughed workers in the lurch and $250 million in lost revenue.

Upon return next month from a little R&R, lawmakers will once again have to make tough decisions pitting belt-tightening Tea Party Republicans and government bodies urging to approve federal funding.

On Monday, Delta Airlines began the process of issuing tax refunds to customers who bought tickets on or before July 22. Congress halted authorization for taxing tickets July 23. With members of the House of Representatives returning to their districts Monday night and the Senate doing the same following the resolution of the debt ceiling debate, many union workers and city’s like Oakland which benefit from the program to continue upgrades to its airport, are up in the air indefinitely.

Proceeds from the FAA tax are transferred to a trust fund to use on projects like finishing construction of the new control tower at Oakland International Airport.

“If we can’t modernize and expand our airport to make it more efficient to have more flights come into Oakland, that will hurt our goal of increasing tourism long-run,” Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said at a press conference with the tower as a backdrop. “It will hurt immediate jobs, it will hurt long-term jobs, and it’s not necessary. There’s no reason why Congress can’t move this forward.”

Part of the debate is a push by Republicans, at the insistence of Delta Airlines, to include a federal rollback of labor rules making it more difficult for workers at airports and railroads to form unions. Sixty union engineers and construction workers in Oakland have been furloughed and may not return to work until early September when Congress reconvenes.

Similar to the ideological standoff over raising the debt ceiling, some Republicans call the FAA a symbol of government waste. Their rest less on tax revenue used on construction projects, but on subsidies to meant to entice airlines to used rural airports. Various taxpayer lobbies point to one little-used rural facility in Ely, Nev. where passengers are subsidized with $3,700 per seat for a short jaunt to Las Vegas.

The razor edge caused by an unwillingness to raise taxes by both parties and an unwavering stand by Tea Party adherents to reduce government has brought once mundane government procedures to the forefront of political debate. Congress has increased the debt limit over 75 times over 8 presidents without controversy until this summer’s ravage debate. Similarly, the Congress has voted for FAA reauthorization 20 times since 2007 without controversy.