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Public Statements

FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. COBURN. It is interesting. We have a nongermane amendment that is outside the bounds of the Constitution, doing something that is not the role of the Federal Government, that we are going to expand the cost at a time when we are bankrupt, and five germane amendments that actually lower the cost of the airport improvement fund, actually help NextGen in terms of money, help preserve the airport trust fund, and we are not going to be allowed to bring them up? If that is the way we are going to operate, then you can count on me, knowing procedure around here, that we will have a very difficult time moving ever to a Leahy amendment.

Mr. President, I came to the floor to discuss what we are trying to do and to be helpful in moving that along. I have now heard that I will not be allowed to offer these amendments or at least bring them up. I am going to discuss each one of them, and I will object to any unanimous consent moving forward on any area until we have an opportunity, as is the Senate tradition, to have a debate and bring up amendments. If we are not allowed to do that, then I am sure we are going to start going backward again.

Passing an FAA authorization bill, as the chairman and ranking member have tried to do, is a significant priority for Congress. We have a system of air traffic control that needs to be modernized. We have monies that we are putting forward to do that. We have not had the oversight, according to the inspector general, that is necessary for those programs.

In this bill, we have authorizations for moneys that are not priorities for this country at a time that we are facing a $1.6 trillion deficit, we have an unemployment rate in excess of 9 percent, and interest rates that are going to rise in the future.

My amendments, which I am happy to have voted on and voted down, lead us to a path that secures and enhances the airport improvement fund and the trust fund, makes common sense that 99 percent of the American people would agree with, excludes Alaska because it is a totally different animal when it comes to the Essential Air Service requirements, and will, in fact, enhance the trust fund. So I am very sorry the chairman refuses to allow my amendments to come up, but I will offer them and have him object in total.

What has to happen with every program in this country is that wasteful spending, low-priority spending, and duplicative spending has to be eliminated. Although I think the chairman and ranking member did a fairly good job on this bill, there are areas where we can eliminate wasteful spending, there are areas where we can eliminate duplicative spending, and there are areas where we can say: This can't be a priority now given the financial fix in which we find ourselves.

During our current budget deficit, the revenues coming into the airport trust fund are lower than expected, and we have this very real need on NextGen development. Congress has to limit somewhere and make a priority next year, and I think they have tried to go in that direction, and these amendments will do such a thing.

The first amendment I would like to talk about is the airport improvement Federal cost share reduction amendment. Across this country, we now have money being spent on low-priority projects in airports that have very little traffic or minimal traffic, and we are not spending money on the airports for safety and for the airports in which we have the vast majority of traffic. We have seen one program in particular where billions of dollars for low-priority projects have been spent.

I would just tell you, if we are ever going to get out of the jam we are in, some common sense has to be applied in that we cannot do everything everybody wants, and there is going to have to be some sacrifice in these areas.

The whole goal of this first amendment is to discourage low-priority, wasteful aviation projects that would not be funded by increasing the non-Federal cost share to just 25 percent over 3 years. In other words, it is 5 percent now, and so it is 95 percent of the government's money, and all we do is, over 3 years, move it to where you have to pay 25 percent. It is going to discourage a lot of low-priority projects because the communities or the States have to have a greater participation.

There is no program in the Federal Government that has a grant process and a funding process where the Federal Government pays 95 percent other than this program--not one. So we are encouraging money to be wasted on low-priority projects by maintaining 95 percent Federal funding. This gives us 3 years to adjust to 75 percent, which probably should be 50 percent but 75 percent given our fiscal issues.

Nonprimary airports could initially have up to 90 percent of their airport improvement projects covered by the Federal Government. In recent years, we raised that, under Public Law 108-176, to 95 percent. This is 20 percent higher than the same cost share for other airports qualifying for this $4 billion program. It is $4 billion a year.

Lest you think I am too critical, let me give you some examples. Two flights a day--two flights a day, noncommercial flights, just two private flights a day--is the average for Kentucky's Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport. We spent $11 million there to build an airport with a 5,500-foot lighted runway, a colonial-style terminal, and hundreds of acres for growth even though it does not have one airline passenger and averages two flights a day. Now, tell me, if you ask the average American: Should we spend $11 million there or should we make sure we can take care of the kids who do not have what they need in this country, should we spend $11 million there or not borrow another $11 million from the Chinese, should we spend $11 million there or should we, in fact, make sure the airport trust fund has the money to do high-priority projects, such as large airports or NextGen, which one would the average American think we should do?

Lest you think I am picking on Kentucky, Halliburton Field in Duncan, OK, got $700,000 for a pilot room and a reception room. We are building for private aviation with taxpayer money--a low priority. We are building a nice pilot room and a reception room for the private pilots who fly there. Now, tell me how that is a priority in our country today. That is my own State.

We are sending money down a hole because we refuse to make tough choices. All this amendment does is say: Let's move it from 95 percent, over 3 years, to 75 percent so we do not get the lower priority projects funded, because we are too generous with what the Federal Government contributes. The chairman may not like it, but I will bet you the average American thinks it is a pretty smart thing to do given the state we are in.

All bets are off on the politics of this. I have never been accustomed to playing the politics of it at all, but there are just as many people on the left who think we ought to cut spending as there are on the right. America gets it. The only place that does not get it is here. And this does not do anything except enhance what can be done for higher priority issues within our aviation community. That is all it does. It is a small, simple step. And by rejecting or not allowing an amendment such as this to come forward, what we are saying is that we are going to keep kicking the can down the road; we are not going to pay attention to the American public. We are going to hide from the reality that is coming very soon for this country. We will not have any money to put into airport improvement programs. We will not have the money to fund a NextGen program. It will become a low-priority program unless we wake up and start doing what the rest of America recognizes we have to do; that is, start living within our means.

The next amendment is an amendment that is a bipartisan amendment between the Senator from Alaska and myself.

It is an earmark rescission amendment. All it says is the earmarks that have been out there, that the money hasn't been spent for over 9 years, giving 1 year for the agencies to decide whether they think that is so, should be rescinded. It puts $500 million, a half a billion dollars at a minimum, back in the public Treasury. Why would we not want to do that? We have $2.6 million sitting in Atlanta that can't be spent on anything except the 1996 Olympics. Why wouldn't we take back that $2.6 million? It was earmarked. It didn't get spent. But it is sitting out there in a hole. We can reverse that. Estimates are we will save a billion dollars. The conservative estimate at a minimum is $500 million. Yet we are not going to allow this amendment to be considered? It makes no sense.

The next amendment calls on us to sacrifice a little bit. The Essential Air Service Program has multiple subsidies where people can easily drive 1 hour and 20 minutes and get to a regional airport that doesn't require any subsidies. All this amendment does is move it to 100 miles from where it is today, which is 70. It moves it to 100 miles and says if you are less than 100 miles, you ought not be eligible, sometimes to the tune of $4 or $500 per person per flight, to have a subsidized flight when you could drive 70 minutes, 80 minutes, and have access to a ton of flights.

Again, it is priority. Is it priority for us to continue to spend money on a small group of airports, 36, that in no way pay for themselves, that are readily accessible throughout the country to major airports, and spend the kind of money we are spending?

Another amendment says if you have less than 10 emplanements a day, we ought to think about whether we are subsidizing Essential Air Service.

All these amendments are saying is, will we make the tough decisions. We can't do everything we want to do. Is it nice that we have an Essential Air Service Program so some people don't have to drive an hour? I guess so. What are we willing to sacrifice to get our house in order? These are little bitty amendments that will send a wonderful signal to the American public that we get it, we absolutely get it. And because we get it, we are going to make choices about priorities. We are going to enhance the airport trust fund. We are going to enhance the airport improvement program because we are going to take lower priorities off the board, which is exactly what they want us to do. They want us to focus on the big things, the important things, and they want us to cut the spending that is not absolutely necessary.

I can tell my colleagues, it is not absolutely necessary that we subsidize some of these smaller airports that are very close to regional airports or have less than 10 passengers a day. It is not absolutely essential. Would we ask some Americans to sacrifice? Yes. But do you know what will happen? We will all have to sacrifice before we get through this. The problem is the resistance in this Chamber and in this city. We don't want to make the hard choices. It is disappointing that we have not done that. We will have to do that. And we are either going to do it or somebody from the outside is going to tell us what we are going to do.

Then a fifth amendment--and I know the chairman will be against this amendment because it is his program that I am trying to eliminate--in the year 2000, we created another program called the Small Community Air Services Program. This is an amendment to repeal that. It was geared to help smaller communities enhance their air service in addition to Essential Air Service; in other words, make it more effective, to try to promote utilization, which is a good idea except it is not working. When we see the funds from this program, after the grant is over, do you know what happens? The airlines leave. They don't stay. They leave. So we are kind of spending money in a market that won't sustain what we are trying to put there, and then we are putting more money on top of it to try to promote it. When it doesn't work, what happens? We lose the Essential Air Service anyhow. It has happened in Oklahoma.

In this day and time that we live, we have to have an FAA bill. We can't continue to not have an FAA bill. Even if my amendments are voted down, considering that they are going to get a vote, I will probably support this bill. But it should be noted that we haven't gone far enough. We haven't made all the tough choices we need to make. I am highly disturbed that we take amendments that are absolutely germane and say they can't be offered because a time agreement, even though it has been agreed to, isn't disagreed to yet because the Senator from Vermont isn't on the floor.

I am going to offer the amendment and let the chairman object. Then I will utilize the procedures that are available to me as a Member of the Senate.

I ask unanimous consent to set aside the pending amendment and call up amendment No. 91.

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Mr. COBURN. I thank the chairman for his words. I will take him at his word and work with him and allow him to look at some of these. There are only two airports in West Virginia that this would have an impact on. Both of them are less than 75 miles from the regional airport. They both have minimal emplanements daily. They are over 10 but not far over that. The point is, we ought to help who we can help, and it ought to make economic sense. They are not targeted because there are 36 airports in here, actually, where the average American would say, this is nuts to spend the kind of money we are.

I thank him for the time.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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