The partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went largely unnoticed by many, even Washington insiders, since it occurred during the larger debt ceiling debate, its impacts were very real; the adverse economic impacts of the shutdown were particularly evident, especially in the midst of a recession. Congress left for its summer recess without reauthorizing the FAA, halting $2.5 billion in construction projects, which resulted in the layoffs of approximately 24,000 on-site construction workers. Furthermore, shutting down construction projects wastes money that eventually must be paid for construction equipment rentals and other fees incurred even when a job is halted. The partial shutdown also prevented the FAA from certifying airports to handle new aircraft, which impacted the operations of two air cargo carriers, Atlas Air and Cargolux. In order to more adequately understand the context of the FAA partial shutdown I researched previous government shutdowns.
Although my research examined the partial shutdown of a single agency related to an expired authorization and not a larger government shutdown related to annual appropriations, these shutdowns are similar in many ways. Only the two shutdowns of 1995 to 1996 were more than symbolic day-long or weekend-long shutdowns. Government operations during a shutdown are largely determined by two opinions issued by former Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti in 1981 that interpret the Antideficiency Act more stringently than in the past. Civiletti’s opinions threatened violators with criminal penalties but allowed agencies to incur obligations that were necessary for an orderly in shutdown. In addition, federal employees that protect life and property, e.g., military personnel, law enforcement officers, and air traffic controllers, are exempt from furlough during a government shutdown. The Office of Management and Budget, an executive branch agency, provides shutdown guidelines to federal agencies.
On July 23, 2011 the 20th reauthorization of the FAA expired and the FAA furloughed nearly 4,000 employees, who are paid out of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. Among others, furloughed employees included scientists, engineers, program managers and analysts, environmental protection specialists, community planners, and perhaps most importantly, airport safety inspectors. On August 4th Congress passed the 21st extension of the FAA’s authorization, allowing furloughed employees to return to work. The causes of this shutdown were numerous despite warnings from the Government Accountability Office about the importance of timely reauthorization. The two primary issues that caused the partial shutdown of the FAA are disagreements between parties over essential air service (EAS) provisions and a ruling by the National Mediation Board (NMB) that makes it easier for workers to unionize. Typically FAA reauthorizations are passed without major disagreement, but even legislation that usually garners bipartisan agreement is seemingly intractable in the current political environment. The fact that a NMB ruling made its way into FAA legislation is an example of the acrimonious environment engulfing Congress. At the least, the partial shutdown of the FAA should demonstrate to Congress the real consequences associated with a government shutdown. In February 2012 Congress finally passed, and President Obama signed, a four-year FAA funding bill after 23 short term extensions; this bill continues the EAS provisions and upholds the NMB’s ruling, although some lesser requirements related to union representation elections were strengthened