Democrat-Gazette: Flying Blind
Mar 20, 2013
Articles & Op-Eds
By: Congressman Tom Cotton
When Arkansas families face economic uncertainty, we prepare for hard times prudently without sacrificing essential needs. For instance, a family might postpone a vacation, extend the life of a truck, or eat out less. The family doesn’t stop paying the mortgage.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to lack Arkansas common sense. Facing modest spending reductions of $85 billion from a $3.796 trillion budget, the administration is cutting the most essential services first, not last. These spending reductions, known as the sequester, are an important first step toward solving our debt crisis, but the president seems intent on making these reductions as painful and dramatic as possible-without thoroughly examining spending habits.
Take the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA recently announced that it would end funding for more than three-quarters of the contract control towers at local airports around the country. Contract towers are air traffic control towers operated by a private company but funded by the FAA. The program reaches all 50 states, includes 250 towers, and has a long history as a safe, cost-effective alternative to FAA-operated towers in low-service, rural areas.
In Arkansas, we have four contract control towers and one FAA-operated tower that the FAA plans to close because of sequester. These towers are an important part of our economy, employing over 500 hardworking Arkansans.
Further, these towers serve as a gateway to distant markets for local businesses, as a primary link between rural communities and the larger aviation network, and as a critical backup to some of our nation’s busiest airports. Not only would rural areas of our state face hardships, but the Little Rock airport would have to accommodate more flights while grappling with its own sequester-related budget cuts.
Why is the FAA taking such sweeping, drastic action? The sequester will cut the FAA budget by nearly 5 percent, yet President Barack Obama grew that budget by nearly 17 percent in just three fiscal years. Plus which, contract towers are particularly cost-efficient. For example, a typical FAA-operated tower costs almost four times as much to operate as a typical contract tower.
Likewise, FAA employees are among the most highly compensated in the federal government-the average annual salary is $155,000-yet contract tower employees have an average base salary of $56,000. And these contract towers have fewer reported safety incidents than do FAA-operated towers.
Something does not add up. Before it starts cutting essential programs, the FAA should carefully examine its actual operating costs and priorities, with proper oversight from Congress. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has thwarted that oversight.
Last year, Congress requested that the Obama administration provide them with details of the effects of sequester-related spending cuts on the FAA. But they failed to respond, instead choosing to project wild scenarios about longer security lines and delayed flights. Now, I fear the FAA is cutting the contract tower program in an attempt to browbeat rural Americans into supporting the president’s demands for more spending and more taxes.
Last week, I and a bipartisan group of 45 of my colleagues in the House and Senate-including my fellow Arkansans, Sen. John Boozman and Congressmen Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack-again asked the FAA for more information regarding how it will implement sequester-related spending cuts. We called on the FAA to explain how ending the contract tower program would affect our aviation infrastructure’s structural integrity, to provide a detailed list of alternative cuts that were considered, and to provide a detailed list of all FAA-funded conventions, conferences and trips for the next two years.
After the sequester, the FAA will have still have more funding than it did in 2008, a year with no employee furloughs and a fully funded contract tower program-even as the airline industry contracts and fewer domestic flights take off. Moreover, the FAA will continue to spend $500 million for consultants and $200 million for supplies and travel.
The FAA should continue serving local airports in Arkansas and around the country before it plans any more lavish conventions or travel. Once the FAA answers our questions, we in Congress will explore whether it’s properly prioritizing such service, or just following the Obama administration game plan of hysteria and hyperbole about modest spending cuts. -
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton represents Arkansas’s 4th District.