Congress faces another countdown, this time FAA reauthorization

Debate continues in Congress surrounding one of the nation's busiest airports. D.C.-area lawmakers want to nix adding flights to Reagan National Airport.

The debate continues in Congress surrounding one of the nation’s busiest airports. D.C.-area lawmakers want to nix an attempt to add flights to Reagan National Airport. Hanging in the balance is a re-authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration. To get the latest, Federal News Network’s Eric White talked with WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchel Miller on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview Transcript: 

Eric White So tell us what’s going on here. Where do things currently stand? I guess we can start locally, since I’m sure that WTOP has been just banging on your door for updates constantly on what’s going on there with Reagan National Airport.

Mitchell Miller Right. And this really is one of the most contentious issues within the more than $100 billion legislation. And that, of course, is this proposal to add ten additional flights, five flights and five flights out into Reagan National Airport. And there has now been a formal amendment offered by the Virginia and Maryland senators who want to get this taken out. They are really upset over the fact that it was included by the Commerce Committee in connection with this overall bill, and they have made the argument for several weeks now that it is really going to be unsafe. That is going to add to more delays for people that go to Reagan National Airport. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine actually went on the Senate floor last week to reiterate his arguments, and he again pointed to the fact that it was just last month that there were two passenger planes that were taxiing down the runway at Reagan National, and not a particularly super busy moment for the airport. And yet they came within 300ft of each other. And as he said, this is a flashing red light to lawmakers and policymakers that this needs to be stopped. Now, on the other side, there are lawmakers from the West and other parts of the country who say that this is not that big a deal to add that many flights, and they have been pushing for this for a long time. Also, Delta Airlines is among the airlines that would like to add these slots. Interestingly, United Airlines is actually fighting them. This is part of an intra airline battle, if you will, because United does not want Delta to get more of an advantage at Reagan National. The other thing that relates to the area airports is that Tim Kaine and others argue that the other airports, Dulles and BWI Marshall, could actually take on more flights because they have more space, whereas literally Reagan National is landlocked. So we’re going to have to see what happens. But this is going to be a very, very big battle as we move forward on this FAA reauthorization bill.

Eric White Yeah, this has been one of the stranger debates that we’ve seen go around, especially for the D.C. area lawmakers who are pretty tight knit community. Do they actually have any shot of getting this eliminated from the FAA reauthorization bill, or is this just going to be, you know, they’re speaking their constituents minds, but, you know, it’s not really going to do much.

Mitchell Miller It does look like there is going to be some movement on this. They have support, interestingly enough, from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Sometimes you don’t know which side of certain issues he’s going to come on, but he is against it. They have also picked up some support from some other senators. And so I think that you are going to see them dig in really, really hard on this. What’s interesting about the overall bill is whether or not this is actually going to get completed in time this week. The deadline is at the end of this week, and when they broke last week, it just didn’t look like senators were going to be able to make this deadline to actually reauthorize it. There is a very good possibility that they will have to do another short term extension. That was hinted at by the number two Senate Republican John Thune, who just said, with all these amendments and this one that we’ve just been talking about, that’s only one. There are several other amendments that a lot of other lawmakers wanted to get on, including those that are not necessarily really directly related to the FAA. This is become one of those legislative vehicles for a lot of other bills. So we’ll have to see what happens over the next few days.

Eric White We’re talking with Mitchell Miller, WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent yeah, let’s get into some of those other amendments that are attached to this FAA reauthorization. One in which it plans to add more air traffic controllers, which I guess you can never have enough of. But are there any other ones that they’re discussing at this point?

Mitchell Miller Right. Well, the there are a lot of provisions in here for airline safety, and they do have pretty widespread support among them, as you mentioned, adding air traffic controllers. There’s also new technology that the FAA wants to implement that would prevent the type of collisions that were, that was cited by Senator Kaine. The concern about these planes on runways, taxiing and then getting very close to each other. So they have cited that also for just consumers, people planning to fly this summer. The legislation would prohibit airlines from charging extra for families to sit together, and it would raise fines for airlines that violate various consumer laws. So there’s still a lot to discuss. And this certainly has a direct impact on a lot of people. It’s not just one of those policy issues that’s up in. The sky, if you will. Yeah.

Eric White Especially in those, videos of folks trying to shame those who don’t move for for children when trying to get families together. So let’s talk other agency news. It looks as if Congress is trying to get an update on just how many workers are going back into the office. They had a goal that they set for them. How are agencies doing and getting all those employees working back in the offices?

Mitchell Miller Well, of course it depends on who you ask. If you ask the agencies themselves, including OMB, they say that there is significant progress being made on the other side. House Republicans in particular, are really pushing back on whether or not enough is being done. There was a somewhat contentious hearing last week with the House Oversight Committee, James Comer, leading that hearing, and one of those who testified was OMB deputy director for management Jason Miller. Now, he said essentially that OMB and these agencies are moving forward, as they are expected to do, to get 50% of their employees working in their office. He also pointed out that many employees simply do not have any access to telework because of the nature of their jobs, he said. So if you add all of those in on a given day, there could be 80% of federal workers actually at the physical workplace where they’re supposed to be. Now, on the other hand. Republicans say they are not getting the data and the drill down information that they really have been pushing for for months, trying to get the exact figures from all of these agencies. And then, as you well know, a federal news network did an extensive survey of federal workers. And it does appear that most workers, about nearly two thirds, have some type of hybrid set up, with about 30% saying they are fully remote. And a very small percentage actually said that they were working entirely in the office. And that is one of the things that upsets a lot of Republican lawmakers.

Eric White Yeah. And so are they going to be pushing any other initiatives to kind of force agencies hands or, do you see this just, you know, the status quo is going to just keep on going until they can get a better update.

Mitchell Miller I think it’s going to come through oversight, I think not only in the House, but you have, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, as you know, has been very active on this issue. And I think that the Republicans are just going to keep pushing to get these agencies to come up with specific figures that actually show that they do have 50% of their employees working in the office. On the other hand, you’re going to have the federal unions who have pushed back a lot. And, you know, I think it’s going to be a bit of a tug of war as it’s been over the last few years. You know, a lot of federal workers, as you know, have said that. What is the point of going into the office if I have to fight traffic for an extended amount of time? I get in, I’m stressed out. And then it turns out that I, as a federal worker, am just basically working virtually on another call that I could have done from my home. So I think you’re just going to see this push back and forth between federal workers, the unions and a lot of lawmakers here on Capitol Hill.

Eric White And you can see that in other areas in the private sector as well. And one agency that is dealing currently and trying to figure out its remote policy is the IRS, who has extended its remote work pilot and is also planning to make its workforce a little bigger. What are their plans and how do we see that playing out?

Mitchell Miller Yeah, I think there’s been a lot of activity within the IRS, and there has been some positive feelings about that on Capitol Hill that things are really moving forward now. After a long time where the IRS was backlogged with all kinds of tax documents, the IT issue, as you know, but what the IRS is now planning to do is it’s going to extend its remote work pilot, through early next year, basically toward the end of January of next year. It was scheduled to end, actually, just before the summer kicked off this year. So they want to basically look at what kind of things are happening within that program. One of the things that they are finding initially is that they are getting more interest in the agency, with remote work, pointing out that a lot of the work can be done remotely with the IRS. And then the other issue, as you point out, is the hiring that is taking place at IRS and it’s continues to move forward. And that is due largely to that $60 billion that was approved through the legislation. That allowed for a lot of the hiring that the IRS has been doing over the last year. There is still some contentiousness back and forth with lawmakers because there were some cuts in that, as you know, but they have put in a lot of money toward their IT situation. They have really picked up the pace on getting all of that backlog basically wiped out. And then in terms of hiring right now through the Inflation Reduction Act, that was the original legislation I was referring to earlier. They actually grew to about 90,000 full time employees, and that’s up more than 10,000 than it was just a couple of years ago. And the IRS commissioner indicated. The Congress that they are now looking to actually have more than 100,000 total employees within the next five years. So they are really beefing up at the IRS. And what they point out is that when they have more money, when they have more staffing, when they’re more efficient, that they can actually bring in more money. Now, on the other side, Republicans say they are targeting a lot of Americans, particularly wealthy Americans, to bring in that money. And there are actually going to be a lot more audits that are done both at the corporate level, but also at the higher end of the income level. But nonetheless, the IRS is moving forward and doing what a lot of policymakers wanted them to do over the last few years.

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