Separate ATC from FAA, or Take the Trust Fund Off-Budget? A Debate Over Three Decades
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
— The Bible
“All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
— Battlestar Galactica
The skyrocketing deficits of the mid-1980s led Congress to enact the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law in 1985, which created a new word in Washington: sequestration. The deficit targets in the law were to be enforced by across-the-board cuts in non-entitlement spending. A 1986 sequestration order that would have cut most discretionary programs by 7.6 percent was not put into effect because the Supreme Court had found the original G-R-H structure unconstitutional on separation of powers grounds, but Congress worked throughout 1987 to fix the law and put it back into effect, and the preliminary deficit numbers indicated that FY 1988 sequestration force cuts in the neighborhood of 9 percent.
It is, therefore, not coincidental that in May 1987, the first legislation to move air traffic control out of the FAA and place it in a separate government-sponsored entity supported by user fees. The legislation (S. 1159, 100th Congress) was sponsored by Senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). Their remarks upon the introduction of the bill indicate that the need to exempt air traffic control from the “budgetary targets we passed to address the problem of deficit spending” (i.e. Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) was a key reason why they offered the legislation.
Congress re-enacted a constitutional version of the G-R-H law in September 1987, and aviation advocates in the House of Representatives took a different approach. On October 1, 1987, House Public Works and Transportation chairman Jim Howard (D-NJ) offered an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill on the House floor that would have taken the Airport and Airway Trust Fund off-budget and encouraged a spend-down of uncommitted balances in the Trust Fund. During debate on the House floor, members repeatedly made reference for the need to remove AATF spending accounts from the restraints of the sequestration-enforced Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit targets. (An October 16, 1987 sequestration order proposed to cut FY 1988 FAA spending by 8.7 percent.)
Both proposals would have required significant change in the status quo. Even though Inouye and Stevens were senior members of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over aviation, they were unable to get the committee to act on their bill. And after vigorous debate, the House rejected the Howard amendment by a narrow vote of 197 yeas to 202 nays. But both proposals have been offered again from time to time over the succeeding three decades, up to the present day.