The Importance of FAA Reauthorizations

The 2013 sequester and government shutdown has sparked a discussion in Congress about whether to separate air traffic control from FAA’s safety function and run it as a quasi-government corporation.  This breakdown in the appropriations process was created by an impasse between the Congress and President about the level of overall government spending.  A similar impasse may emerge in the debate about FY2016 spending.  An air traffic control corporation, were it to be created, would most likely be contained in the upcoming FAA reauthorization legislation that is currently under development in both houses of Congress.  Let’s take a look at the difference between authorization and appropriations bills.  Both are important to aviation businesses but each type of bill performs a different function.

Appropriators will proudly tell you that their function is enshrined in the Constitution itself; “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law (Article I, Section 9).”  Authorizations (and by extension reauthorizations) are a creation of House and Senate rules.  In the two-step congressional process for spending money, an agency or program must first be authorized in order to be eligible to receive an appropriation. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Authorization acts establish, continue, or modify agencies or programs.”[1]  Legislative committees are responsible for developing authorization legislation and the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Commerce Committees are responsible for legislation that authorizes the functions and programs of the FAA.

The duration of an authorization can be for a fixed amount of time or open-ended.  Similarly, an authorization can be for a fixed amount of money or provide for “such sums as may be necessary.”  Securing an authorization does not guarantee the agency or program the full amount of the authorization.  The decision about how much money a program or agency will actually receive is within the purview of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee.  As we saw, the process for funding the FAA in FY2016 began last week with approval by the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations bill for FY2016.   A frequently asked question is whether there are unauthorized appropriations.  The answer is yes.  In fact, a January report from the Congressional Budget Office noted that in the current fiscal year about $294 billion was appropriated for programs and activities whose authorizations have expired.[2]

The FAA’s last reauthorization bill, the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012” (PL 112-95), authorized spending for the FAA’s major accounts and programs including NextGen for FY2012 through the end of FY2015.  Of particular interest to aviation business, the 2012 FAA reauthorization also contained a number of provisions aimed at accelerating the implementation of new technologies by improving the certification process and streamlining regulatory interpretation across the eight FAA regions, 10 aircraft certification offices, and 80 flight standards district offices.

The current authorization of FAA programs expires on September 30, 2015 and theoretically a lapse in authorization renders a program ineligible for appropriations.  Practically, that rarely happens as Congress will typically waive the authorization requirement and continue to fund the agency.  Recall that between 2007 and 2012 there were 23 short-term extensions of the FAA, a period when enacting a long-term reauthorization was seemingly bedeviled by various labor and airport competition issues.  Protracted lapses in authorization reduce congressional oversight and shift the governmental balance away from the legislative branch more firmly toward the executive branch.

This year’s FAA reauthorization bill poses both risk and opportunity for the general aviation community.  As we discussed in the opening, the 2013 government shutdown and sequestration have started a discussion about the future organization structure and funding of the FAA.  On this issue, NATA has told policymakers (link to ATC reform testimony) that while we should all support the injection of more private sector practices into the FAA, it is important how we manage any changes to the agency in order to maintain a stable, safe and efficient system that protects access for all users of our system.  The upcoming reauthorization presents lawmakers with an opportunity to make even clearer that the 24/7 operation of the air traffic control system is – like our defense – a national priority that should not be held hostage to political debates.

As we saw in 2012, the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill also represents an opportunity for NATA to intervene on behalf of our members in other policy matters.  In preparation for such conversations, our regulatory team consulted with members through our policy committees to help us identify aviation business issues to be raised with policy makers.  Because of your help, we are also emphasizing how Congress can utilize the upcoming legislation to assist industry efforts to improve regulatory consistency at the agency, use its existing resources in a manner that benefits aviation businesses, improve safety, and provide a better investment climate.

Hearings on the development of the FAA reauthorization bill are well underway in Congress. By the time you arrive in Washington, D.C. in June for the 2015 Aviation Business Conference, the debate may be entering a critical phase and the opportunity to share your views with key policymakers will be critical to the future of aviation businesses.

[1] “The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction,” Sandy Streeter, CRS. Page 24

[2] “Unauthorized Appropriations and Expiring Authorizations,” Congressional Budget Office. January 15, 2015

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs

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