Debra J. Saunders
On Wednesday, congressional Democrats were doing everything in their power not to end the legislative stalemate that shut down the Federal Aviation Administration, but to make sure everyone blamed Republicans. So they did what they always do; they held a news conference to denounce Republicans' "my way or the highway" approach when they wanted their way for the airways.

But the Democrats' usual tap dance didn't click. The news conference backfired. The next day, the Senate announced a deal to keep the FAA in business temporarily.

The stalemate began July 20, when the House passed a bill to extend FAA funding through Sept. 15. Even though failure to pass a bill would mean a shutdown and the temporary loss of 75,000 federal and construction jobs, Senate Democrats blocked passage because the House measure cut $16.5 million of funding from a pork-rich rural-airport subsidy program.

The news conference was meant to prompt the media to blame Republican recalcitrance. Instead, a reporter asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, "Why not just accept this short-term extension and live to fight another day?"

The Dems were dumbstruck. Reid replied, "Live to fight another day (on) Sept. 15 and -- what will the hostages be then?" Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chided the reporter for "a certain naivete" in not understanding that "this is about government threats." Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pointed out that House Republicans had targeted politically powerful Democrats and taken away "things that were necessary for them." Rockefeller should know. He is one of them.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sputtered, "It's the issue of hostage taking. It's as if someone puts a gun to your head and says, 'Give me your money,' and then you say, 'Why won't you give them their money?'"

Clearly, Schumer and company see your tax dollars as theirs to spend. As The Washington Post editorialized, the Essential Air Service program is "notoriously wasteful." It subsidizes half-empty flights to rural airports, many within 100 miles of larger airports. Its funding quadrupled from $26 million in 1997 to $109 million in 2007. It now costs some $200 million annually.

In holding Wednesday's news conference, Reid, Boxer, Rockefeller and Schumer were trumpeting their decision to put pork and perks ahead of other people's paychecks.

The deal announced Thursday allows the Senate to pass the House bill with the cuts to the Essential Air Service program -- thanks to an understanding that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood can grant waivers and throw money at hard-pressed airports.

On the one hand, the deal makes you wonder whether Washington can cut anything. On the other hand, the shutdown prevented the government from collecting more than $350 million in taxes on airline tickets. If the House Republicans' idea of economy is to forfeit $350 million to save $16 million, I don't think the public will have much of an appetite for more "savings" when Congress reconvenes.

The irony here is that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., now faces increased pressure to go after rural-airport funding -- whether he wants to or not. And it may well be that saving taxpayers money was not his top priority.

According to Aviation Daily, Mica told the American Association of Airport Executives that his committee was using the rural-airport program as "a tool" to pressure Democrats to agree to an "anti-worker" labor law.

(After President Barack Obama named two former union officials to the three-member National Mediation Board, the labor panel changed the rules for airline and railroad union elections to allow a workforce to unionize by winning a majority vote. The decision overturned the 76-year practice of counting non-votes as "no" votes. House Republicans want to overturn the labor panel's ruling. Delta Air Lines has lobbied for the GOP provision.)

Senate Democrats oppose the GOP's attempt to block changes that would have made it easier to organize unions in airlines. Though the temporary FAA bill did not include the GOP labor provision, they contend that the maneuver is part of a long-term strategy to hold FAA funding hostage in order to accommodate one private airline.

"We're not doing this for Delta," Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode told me. "We want the NMB issue to be resolved in negotiations," just as Mica wants to negotiate "reform" of rural-airport funding.

"We're not really trotting out there with press conferences," he added. That is probably a good thing. Because sometimes press conferences backfire.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Debra J. Saunders


 
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