In the recent blanket coverage of the debt crisis, the ongoing story about Congress's failure to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration got a bit lost. The limited coverage concentrated on the ping-pong aspect of legislative gamesmanship. Something rang a bell, though, when I read that the House had passed a bill with a short-term extension of funding, which the Senate refused either to vote on or to propose an alternative to, instead demanding that the House try again with something more palatable to the Senate. Hey, that sounds a lot like what happened with the debt ceiling. In my line of work, we call that negotiating against yourself.

Not only does Harry Reid demand that the House negotiate against itself, but he accuses it of taking hostages. I think what he's talking about is the usual process of offering legislative compromises: we'll give you something you want rather desperately, but we intend to exact a price. Senate Democratic leaders are demanding what's come to be called lately a "clean" bill, which is one that extends FAA funding without including two irritating conditions: (1) cuts to subsidies for rural airports and (2) a re-instatement of the decades-long traditional rule for unionizing an FAA facility (recently overturned by regulatory fiat) requiring a majority vote of all workers instead of merely a majority of those voting.

For Senate Democrats, the inclusion of these obnoxious requirements is the equivalent of taking hostages. The tactic strikes me, however, as a pretty ordinary one for both sides of the aisle. The argument can be made that all legislation should address a single issue, to be voted up or down in a "clean" fashion. Indeed, this is the theory behind the often-proposed but never-approved line-item veto. I don't see it going anywhere, though. When the shoe is on the other foot, the attitude most often is that compromise is how the business of government is supposed to get done. I'm not sure it helps to characterize every compromise as taking one issue hostage for the purpose of getting concessions on another.

As things stand, the House approved continued funding for the FAA, which the Senate refused to take up. The Senate has not produced its own proposal, just as it refused until the very last minute to produce its own proposal to the hated House bill on the debt ceiling. Neither chamber is technically in recess this week, but that's only a gambit to prevent recess appointments, because legislators actually have all gone home. FAA workers are left hanging, but is it really because the Republican House has taken them hostage? Or is it because Senate Democrats can't bring themselves to adjust to the new reality that they can't pass legislation without real compromise?

No comments: