September 26, 2012

Getting It Done in the Do-Nothing Congress

Dear Fellow Pilot,

Last week, Congress left Washington, D.C., and will not return until after the November 6 election. Members of Congress from both political parties headed home to campaign, meet with constituents, and speechify, leaving behind a legislative mess to deal with after the election.

Major issues face our nation, including the forthcoming sequestration of the federal budget where more than $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts will hit all federal agencies, including the FAA, TSA, and the Pentagon. All 12 spending bills failed to pass Congress, forcing lawmakers to once again pass a continuing resolution in order to keep the government funded, punting important spending decisions further down the road. And other major fiscal challenges for our economy that demand Congress’s attention loom at the end of the year, yet none of these pressing issues have been resolved by this Congress.

There is a cottage industry in D.C. that works to slow down the legislative process and make progress on any issue challenging, but this past year has set a new record low for congressional action.

Partisan gridlock—a closely divided House and Senate—made the 112th Congress the least productive in history. The historic “Do-Nothing Congress,” as named by President Truman in 1948, passed 908 laws. This Congress is on track to pass fewer than 200, with many of the actions taken being simply symbolic, like naming federal buildings or issuing commemorative coins and stamps. The list of real legislative achievements in this Congress is very thin, and interest groups from all sectors—labor, corporations, small businesses, issue-advocacy groups, etc.—found getting anything at all done in Washington to be challenging, if not impossible.

Yet, while most policy agendas languished, the Air Line Pilots Association, International has been able to break through the partisan gridlock and chalk up a few victories for our members.

Coming out of the 2011 summer shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, ALPA made a permanent reauthorization of the FAA a top goal and blitzed Capitol Hill with pilots in uniform to speak as aviation safety professionals to the urgent need for the reauthorization. Our advocacy won the day and, after 24 short-term extensions, the FAA was reauthorized for a full four years in early 2012. In addition to myriad safety and efficiency improvements, the reauthorization included a provision, championed by ALPA, to allow airline employees who had a terminated pension plan payment in bankruptcy to roll over their payment into a traditional IRA. This single provision, tucked away in the FAA bill, saved thousands of ALPA members tens of thousands of dollars. How many organizations can claim victories like that for their members this year?

ALPA also took on the subsidies provided to foreign carriers through the U.S. Export-Import Bank on the sale of U.S.-made wide-body aircraft. ALPA members again took to the Hill to make our case that the financing provided to foreign carriers gives them a competitive advantage on international routes and can result in the loss of U.S. pilot jobs. A true underdog in this fight, ALPA partnered with some of the impacted air carriers to take on not only the administration and Ex-Im’s defenders in Congress, but The Boeing Company, the Business Roundtable, and the Chamber of Commerce. Ultimately, we forced a compromise that leaves us in an excellent position going forward. The United States must now begin negotiations with the four EU countries that support Airbus to bring about a bilateral end to wide-body aircraft subsidies. This is a victory for our members, and one that will pay dividends to U.S. airline employees for years to come.

ALPA was also successful in pushing for the release of new flight- and duty-time regulations for passenger airline pilots from the executive branch. The new fatigue rule (FAR 117) is a significant science-based leap forward for safety, and getting the rule published in this era of inaction was a major accomplishment for all airline pilots and passengers. Unfortunately, the final rule was substantially altered during the rulemaking process to exclude cargo operations, an inappropriate cutout that ALPA is now working to correct through bipartisan legislation. While not a complete success, the new rule moves the ball toward the goal line of One Level of Safety for all pilots in our skies.

Finally, just as Congress broke for their seven-week break, the Senate acted on another ALPA priority by passing legislation to allow U.S. carriers to withdraw from participation in the EU’s emissions trading scheme, a large, market-distorting tax imposed on U.S. airline emissions. This bill will move through the House once Congress returns for its post-election “lame duck” session, adding yet another legislative victory to our pilot partisan agenda.

In this “Do-Nothing Congress,” how was ALPA able to find success while so many others’ agendas were stymied?

First, when possible, ALPA built coalitions with others in the industry, both labor and management, broadening our base and strengthening our voice. If pilots are to be successful at the bargaining table, we need their employers to be profitable. Working with the air carriers and focusing on what we agree on, rather than what we disagree on, allowed us to make progress together to level the playing field for U.S. airlines and their employees.

Additionally, we successfully utilized our most valuable asset: our members. At 52,000 strong, we are the largest pilot voice in the world, and when our pilots engage and speak in one voice on Capitol Hill, we tend to get noticed. We also enhanced and strategically used the political arm of ALPA, our Political Action Committee (PAC), to better educate members of Congress and deepen our relationships on Capitol Hill. Regardless of whether you agree with the use of money in politics, a great deal of our success rests on the strength of our PAC. We live in a world where having a PAC is no longer an option, but a requirement for success in D.C. Our pilot partisan PAC supports Republicans and Democrats who support professional pilots and safeguard our careers. Knowing that we will stand behind them politically when an ALPA priority comes before Congress has enabled us to expand the number of pilot champions in Congress and deepen our relationships with our past heroes.

As we look ahead at the 113th Congress, it is unknown who will control Congress and who will sit in the White House. What is known, however, is that ALPA will be ready for whatever we face in Washington, D.C. We are poised to aggressively tackle the tough issues coming at us and proactively push a pilot partisan agenda that levels the playing field for our members.

In unity,

Capt. Lee Moak

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