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A normal Senate confirmation is as stylized and filled with elaborate layers of meaning as the Japanese Kabuki (歌舞伎 kabuki?) dance/play. The process of Advice and Consent for the nomination of Michael P. Huerta for a five year term as FAA Administrator becomes even more complex and filled with hidden meaning. On June 22 the Senate Commerce Committee began, but did not complete that process with questioning by Chairman Rockefeller, Senator Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Begich (D-AK), Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ), Senator Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ranking Republican Senator Hutchinson (R-TX) getting in questions before the session was recessed for a floor vote with no date for restarting the hearing set.
Above are nine of the prominent articles on the questions asked; some of the stories clearly reflect the perspective of the author/trade association (AAAE, AMA [aeronautical model], AOPA, HAI), but for some the “makeup of the actor” must be removed to show the real interest evidenced in the article.
AAAE, one of Washington’s leading aviation advocate associations, recites all of the topics covered (aviation safety, pilot training/fatigue, NextGen, the reauthorization mandates), but quickly points its pen to the topic of greatest interests to its airport management members. Senator Klobuchar, whose state includes a lot of small airports, asked the Nominee about the higher percentage contributions imposed on those smaller facilities by the Reauthorization Act passed in January. Clearly, she could get no straight answer from Mr. Huerta, since the concept was passed by the Committee Members in the room.
AOPA, another aeropolitical Washington heavyweight, first mentioned the questions about whistleblowers and pilot fatigue, but focused its report on Senator Begich’s questions about the Obama $100 per flight user fee and the efforts by environmental groups to phase out AvGas. In response to the questions of the Co Chair of the GA Caucus, the Nominee said that he was trying to define a way “to share the costs” of NextGen and that he was “very committed to GA.”
AOPA’s report included a positive comment from Senator Hutchinson, a Republican, “you have a very good record as Deputy and then Acting Administrator”, but tempered that plus with Chairman Rockefeller’s dissatisfaction with the FAA in implementing the two pilot rulemakings.
HAI’s report mentioned Rockefeller’s frustration at the delays in the final issuance of the pilots rules. They also recalled Senator Lautenberg’s comment on the same subject “you’re getting some pressures that I don’t really think are justified.” HAI noted that even if the nomination passes from the Senate Commerce Committee, there are 150 other nominations sitting in the Senate Floor in box.
Aero.net included, verbatim, the opening comments of Chairman Rockefeller:
“If confirmed, you will be charged with leading the most complex aviation system in the world and an agency that faces several critical challenges. Chief among these tasks is making sure the agency takes the steps necessary to maintain the highest levels of safety in the aviation industry.”
To continue the Kabuki theme, this GA centric news site then lifted a quote from Business Week, which said that the Chairman “peppered” the nominee about the FAA unresponsive record on whistleblower cases. The senior Senator from West Virginia responded to Mr. Huerta’s reply on the issue of the issuance of final pilot rules, delayed until 2013, by saying curtly “this is not an answer at all.”
Bloomberg added a meaningful comment made by Senator Cantwell, from the state in which Boeing’s largest manufacturing plants are located, said that “Not having an administrator sends the wrong message to the airline industry.” [emphasis added]. Bloomberg included another insightful exchange between Senator Hutchinson and the nominee; Mr. Huerta pointed out that the FAA had added an office within the agency the sole focus of which is to respond quickly to such complaints (jdasolutions.aero/blog).
Even the Academy of Model Aeronautics‘ website issued a balanced report. It characterized the six minutes of questions asked by Chairman Rockefeller as “grilling”, but then did its own “nose count” by indicating that the members “generally seemed to favor the nomination.”
The Buffalo News reflected that community’s interest in the 2009 Continental Connection crash. In response to Mr. Huerta’s comment that reviewing an unusually large and contentious docket will require a lot of time, the Chairman retorted “Don’t talk to me about lots of comments or that it’s a complicated process. Everything is that around here.” A little more muted were the words of Senator Cantwell, who said “We want to implement the right rules, but 2013 is a long time.” The reporter noted,in closing, that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 were “pleased.”
General Aviation News found an interesting quote in the nominee’s opening statement where he said “how do you take the safest aviation system and make it safer? By making it smarter.” That introduction connected to his reliance on the high technology of NextGen, the technology of which may impose heavy equipment installation costs on GA. As noted above, Mr. Huerta “completely understands the importance of general aviation” and he wants to find ways in which “share the costs of NextGen.” These are hardly objectionable responses, but neither are they answers which would tie the Administrator nominee’s hands when a final user fee rule is issued.
Politico is known for its understanding of the Kabuki like speech of Senate hearings. It quoted the Chairman as being “aghast” at Heurta’s vague statement in response to Senators Cantwell’s and Hutchinson’s questions on the pilot training and rest rules. This political rag, in the good sense of that phrase, was the only source to note that the hearing was stopped for a floor vote without setting a date for restarting the committee’s deliberations.
Last but not least, GovNews included a video of Sen. Begich’s line of questioning of the Nominee about the Obama $100 user fee. Clearly,the Co Chair of the GA Caucus will be a problem if the President brings this controversial proposal to the Congress.
What do these ten reports tell us?
- The Senators are not happy when they are not heard; the Reauthorization Act imposed deadlines for issuance of the pilot training and fatigue rules. It matters not that the Administrative Procedure Act requires that the FAA must carefully consider the voluminous comments, both pro and con. Mr. Huerta, for obvious reasons, did not respond boldly that a quick rule would be crushed on appeal (jdasolutions.aero/blog).
- Every member of Congress has a whistleblower among her or his constituents; so concerns about the FAA’s responsiveness were expected.
- What were the most Kabuki ambiguous answers were his replies to the AAAE question about local contributions to AIP funding and the AOPA questions about user fees.
- The best Kabuki roles were the smiles of the Senators; while no one spoke ill of the nominee, there should be no expectations that all of the Committee members will answer AYE when the question of Mr. Huerta’s nomination is put nor that the five year term will make it to the Senate floor before November (jdasolutions.aero/blog)
Fortunately, this is only Act One of our Kabuki drama. The Committee will reconvene and it is likely that the makeup of the second cast of questioners will be the equally inscrutable Republicans!Share this article: