As the 112th Congress begins its session in 2011, we will see significant changes in Congressional aviation priorities and mandates. The new Congress will have approximately 75 new members with changes in the House and Senate.

Senate Commerce Committee [1]

No major changes are expected in the Senate Commerce Committee. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will remain Chairman while Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) will continue as ranking member. Currently, Democrats hold a three seat advantage on the panel with the seats allocated 14 to Democrats and 11 to Republicans. This ratio likely will change to 13 Democrat seats and 12 Republican seats. With the retirement of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Democrats will not need to remove any sitting member despite the reduction. Republicans must replace two sitting members who will exit the committee due to retirement (Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and George LeMieux (R-FL)), while adding one seat in the ratio adjustment for a net gain of three seats.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee [2]

As a result of the elections, a number of Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will be forced off the Committee, though the final size of the Committee and the ratio of Republicans to Democrats has yet to be determined. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), who lost his election, has been Committee Chairman since 2007 when the Democrats took control of the House. With a Republican takeover of the House, Ranking Member John Mica (R-FL) will become Chairman. Democrats will need to name a new Ranking Member for the Committee. Some names in consideration are Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) who currently serves as Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee. If Costello does not become Ranking Member on Aviation (which is possible), Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) could vie for that slot. Meanwhile, current Ranking Member Tom Petri (R-WI) will become Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee.

The Impact on Legislation and Policies

In September, the House and Senate passed yet another extension to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, H.R. 6190, The Airport and Airways and Extension Act of 2010, Part III, moving the expiration date to December 31, 2010. This will be the 16th temporary extension in three years, with the most recent long-term legislation in 2007.

Since July, the FAA Reauthorization Bill has been held up in the Senate, primarily over a provision that would significantly increase the number of long-distance flights originating from Reagan Washington National Airport.

Other issues holding up the process of a permanent long-term bill involve a labor dispute with FedEx. Given the election defeat of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Jim Oberstar, and the fact that he championed this fight for UPS, the end result is that this issue likely fades away in the 112th Congress.

Another provision that may also be dropped by the Committee is the proposal to increase the passenger facility user fee (PFC). The House wanted to include a clause that would increase the PFC cap to $7, from the current level of $4.50. There is no such clause in the Senate Bill. This proposal was opposed by the airlines and many travelers. It is unlikely that a Republican-controlled Committee and House of Representatives would approve higher fees.

There are other provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Bill that may be changed by a new Congress, such as binding arbitration for the air traffic controllers, addressing the consolidation and realignment of FAA facilities, and making investments in NextGen and air traffic control modernization. Another issue likely to be addressed involves foreign investment in U.S. carriers. The current Committee leadership has opposed proposals to increase foreign investment and control of U.S. carriers. With additional worldwide consolidation of airlines and expanded “alliances,” it is likely that the new leadership of the Committee and House will consider changing investment restrictions placed on foreign entities.

If the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee takes up a multi-year FAA Reauthorization, as noted above, it is expected that bill will look drastically different than the previous iterations described above. Many of the controversial provisions will be dropped, and the bill will likely be pared back so as to keep spending at a minimum, which will be a key focus of the new majority in the House. The Senate, which will still be controlled by Democrats, will likely stay relatively close to the legislation they crafted this past year, which may actually make producing an agreement with the House easier, depending on CBO scoring. However, this could also result in a variety of aviation-related industry groups, including airports and others, feeling some degree of heartburn over provisions they have championed for years not being included.

From an Appropriations standpoint, the 111th Congress will need to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government and its agencies running at currently appropriated levels for a two to three month time period. Going forward, the incoming House Leadership has pledged to reduce funding levels at a macro level back to what they were in 2008 (with no earmarks) in order to cut spending. This could mean that a variety of aviation-related DOT/FAA programs could see reductions from current levels. An exception to these possible reductions will likely be in the homeland security arena, where it will be harder to trim aviation-related security spending.

Conclusion

The 111th Congress is scheduled to return to Washington on November 15 to begin its lame duck session. Much of that first week will be devoted to leadership activities ahead of the commencement of the 112th Congress, including election of House and Senate leadership, decisions on Committee leadership positions, and Member appointments to Committees. While changes in control of Congress and various Committees could have major impacts on all aspects of aviation, we expect few bills to be passed during the lame duck session.