You would think essential travel services - such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would be too important to become playthings of powerful poitical interests.
You could think this. But you would be wrong, especially in the heat of the mean season of U.S. national politcs, which features mild, middle-of-the-roaders like President Barack Obama and his supporters versus livid, far-right activists in a struggle to see who will dominate. The FAA, which oversees the world's largest civil aviation system, is one such plaything. Wrapping up its 20th temporary funding extension, the agency faces a temporary shutdown tomorrow, absent a 21st funding extension. By Saturday, it may have to furlough 4,000 FAA workers deemed non-essential. Air traffic controllers would stay on the job.
Of course, furloughing federal workers and shutting down the government is no problem to people who are hostile to federal regulation - and, in extreme cases, to the very idea of government. Inconveniencing and perhaps even imperiling the safety of travelers? That's no big deal, either.
The nub of the issue is, of course, money. The mild, Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate has approved $34.5 billion to fund the FAA for two years - $17.25 billion a year. The conservative Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed a four-year bill totalling $60.1 billion - about $15 billion a year. Those couple billion extra in the Senate bill would go to fund badly needed infrastructure upgrades and airport expansions. The two houses of Congress have been unable to reconcile their different bills - which would replace all those extensions.
There are some other snafus, too. The Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee wants to end a subsidy to airlines that underwrites air service to small towns left hanging when the U.S. civil aviation system was deregulated in 1978. The Republican hails from heavily populated Florida; several key Democrats represent states such as lightly populated Montana that rely on the subsidy. The ease or lack of it with which federal workers can join labor unions is also at stake.
Evidently nothing is too petty in this mean season in American life to be out of bounds in a political struggle. And if that means causing workers to lose their jobs in a time of already stubbornly high unemployment and travelers to be incovenienced or endangered, well, that's just the way it goes. Know what I mean?