WASHINGTON – When U.S. Sen. Mark Udall flies home to Colorado next week, he could experience the same air-travel delays Americans across the country have struggled with recently.
The delays are a result of automatic, across-the-board budget cuts – known as sequestration – that began March 1, and hit Federal Aviation Administration employees with furloughs earlier this week. Reduced staffing led to delays in airports nationwide.
To alleviate these delays, Udall, D-Colo., introduced a bill Thursday – called the Reducing Flight Delays Act – that grants the secretary of transportation the flexibility to move as much as $253 million from other parts of the department’s budget to the FAA.
Udall’s bill skyrocketed from introduction to unanimous passage by the Senate on Thursday. The House approved the measure by a 361-to-41 vote less than 24 hours later. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, voted for the bill.
The added flexibility means the FAA can avoid further furloughs of essential employees to keep the industry running smoothly, according to Udall.
“This is important because it helps ensure that we don’t have an unacceptable and avoidable drag on our resurging economy,” Udall said in a telephone interview with the Herald on Friday.
“If you think about it, air travel is tied to business, commerce, tourism – all parts of our ongoing economic recovery,” he said, citing Colorado’s large tourism industry.
The FAA attributed 1,025 delays on Tuesday to staff shortages, according to the New York Times, and 975 delays to other causes, including weather.
The Durango-La Plata County Airport has not felt any effects of sequestration yet, said Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the Durango city manager.
Udall’s bill largely targets air-traffic controllers and other essential FAA employees. The Durango-La Plata airport has no control tower.
It now heads to the president’s desk in its final journey. The White House said President Barack Obama would sign the bill into law, but Press Secretary Jay Carney said the sequester needs to be eliminated entirely, not just through piecemeal legislation.
“This is a Band-Aid covering a massive wound to the economy. This is $253 million out of an $80-plus billion-over-seven-months problem,” Carney said in a White House news briefing Friday. “And Congress should do the responsible thing and stop dealing with these issues from crisis to crisis, and simply engage in a discussion about how we can eliminate the sequester entirely through balanced deficit reduction.”
After the president’s signature, there is a five-day period for congressional oversight where the FAA must provide notice to and work with the House and Senate appropriations committees, said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone, to examine and implement the transfer of funds.
So the delays won’t disappear overnight, but they are expected to reduce soon.
“This is important because it helps ensure that we don’t have an unacceptable and avoidable drag on our resurging economy,” Udall told the Herald.
This is Udall’s first piece of legislation in the 113th Congress, which began in January, to be signed into law.
“I’m thrilled because it focuses on the economy and protecting jobs,” he said. “My job is to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to strengthen our economic recovery. That’s what Coloradans want me to do, that’s what I hear when I’m home.”
In March, Udall and his co-sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced legislation to give federal agencies and departments more flexibility in implementing the sequester cuts.
That bill could have avoided problems such as these aviation delays, Udall said, adding he will continue to push to apply the FAA solution to sequester cuts at other agencies and departments.
“We do need to cut spending, but we ought to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt our economic recovery,” he said.
As federal lawmakers head home for next week’s recess, many will take those backed-up flights, possibly including Udall.
It never hurts when a legislator experiences the outcomes of legislative initiatives or policies that person did or did not support, he added.
“I’m a citizen, I experience the same joys and trials and tribulations as everyone else does when I travel,” he said.
Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.