Earlier this month, Senate Democrats brazenly forced a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA. They were willing to hold 4,000 employees hostage and forgo millions in revenue from airline tickets, all for the purpose of securing their inveterate pork projects. Democrats refused to pass the House extension bill because Republicans inserted minor limits on a rural pork program, better known as Essential Air Service (EAS). They also blocked the bill because of an anti-labor provision that never existed in this stopgap bill.
The House-passed bill had two provisions to limit EAS: 1) It established a $1,000-per-ticket subsidy cap, which affects subsidized service at three airports. 2) The extension eliminated subsidies for service to airports that are 90 miles or less from a large or medium hub airport. This provision affects ten locations.
Originally, Harry Reid opposed the bill because his airport in Ely, Nevada, which enjoys a $3,720 per passenger subsidy, would be cut off under the first provision. However, two weeks later, Reid admitted that "$3,500 per passenger is a little extreme," and was ready to pass the bill by unanimous consent. A few hours later, Reid seemed to have amnesia of his earlier statement, and continued to block the bill on behalf of his colleague, John Rockefeller. You see, Morgantown Municipal Airport, which enjoys a $1.5 million annual subsidy, is 75 miles away from the nearest medium hub airport in Pittsburgh. As such, it would have suffered a cut under the second provision of the bill. Rockefeller, the post-Byrd king of pork, was having none of that.
Finally, Rockefeller and Reid agreed to pass the House bill because they discovered language in the bill that grants the Secretary of Transportation authority to waive the restriction on subsidies for those within 90 miles of larger airports. They were clearly anticipating that Secretary Ray LaHood, who used to be a Republican, would completely vitiate the intent of the bill.
There is only one problem: LaHood does not have a blank check to grant those waivers. Pursuant to the text of the bill, the Secretary may grant a waiver only to those airports in which "geographic characteristics of the location result in undue difficulty in accessing the nearest medium or large hub airport."
Earlier this week, Senators Coburn, DeMint, Lee, Paul and Rep. John Mica sent a letter to Secretary LaHood making it clear that the intent of the waiver provision in the bill was not to do Harry Reid's bidding:
Everyone knows that there are ancillary benefits and detriments to living in rural areas. In this day and age, when we are blessed with cars – instead of horses, a 90-minute ride from Morgantown to Pittsburgh does not qualify as an "undue difficulty." Any waiver of this sort from LaHood would represent an abrogation of his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress.
We'll be watching you, Secretary LaHood.