Is Our Democrats Learning? Or: Fighting Fire with Fire / Burning Down the House
~by Ryan B
Somewhat lost amidst the debt ceiling kerfluffle, the Federal Aviation Administration is about to end its second week of a partial shutdown, a shutdown that appears almost certain to extend into September. At the root of this is a pretty fundamental fault-line between the two parties over – what else? – unions. What makes this particular fight interesting to me is that it actually is sort of a case study in what might happen if the “leftists” defeat the “neoliberals” in the internecine war for the heart of liberalism.
First, a tiny bit of background, because I assume the FAA is pretty obscure to most people. Employees of the FAA are paid from one of two sources: the General Fund (i.e., the U.S. Treasury), or the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. The AATF gets its funding from the ticket taxes you pay when you fly, and then that money goes back out the revolving door to fund (usually) new projects, construction, etc. Most employees are paid from the General Fund, but a lot of the research and analytical people are paid from the Trust Fund. The Trust Fund, unlike the General Fund, requires periodic reauthorization from Congress in order to continue functioning. That authorization expired about four years ago, and Congress has been passing extensions since then to keep the doors open.
The major obstacle preventing Congress from just passing a reauthorization bill to keep FAA going for the next five or ten years has been an Obama administration rule about unionization for rail and airline employees. Under the old system, in order to unionize, the prospective union needed a majority of all employees, whether those employees bothered to vote in the union election or not. The Obama administration changed that rule, so now the requirement is a simple majority of those who show up to the election. Needless to say, Republicans aren’t totally crazy about this rule, and they’ve made their objections known by holding up FAA reauthorization until or unless the Democrats agree to reverse this rule.
All of this came to a head about two weeks ago, when Congress finally stopped passing extensions and the Trust Fund’s authority lapsed. Four thousand employees (and who knows how many contractors) have been furloughed, construction projects have been halted, and the Trust Fund is missing out on something like $200 million a week in uncollected taxes.
Anyway, what I find most interesting about this (and, full disclosure: as an FAA contractor myself, this is not the only thing I find interesting) is that what’s going on here kind of approximates what those of us on the “left” (myself included) are always yapping about, and what the “neoliberals” are always saying won’t work. A few weeks ago, the House passed a bill (H.R. 2553, if you’re curious) that would extend the Trust Fund’s authority through September 16th. And they even took out the union rule!
(Although they did leave in some cuts to the Essential Air Service, a program that ensures air travel service to small, rural communities; Democrats and Republicans also disagree about funding for EAS, but it is not the ideological fault-line that unions are.)
But Democrats have dug in their heels and simply refused to pass the House’s extension. They have decided – and it’s somewhat clear that the caucus has simply overruled Reid here – that they are unwilling to die a death by a thousand cuts. Passing an extension for a month with $16 million of cuts to EAS, they realize, is just the first step. Once that’s the new normal, then you have to cut a little more here, a little more there, and so on. So they’ve drawn a line in the sand.
And… Republicans don’t care. The FAA has been partially shut down for two weeks, and it’s not clear that the GOP is backing down at all (and they’re all on recess anyway). This, of course, is what the Chaits and the Yglesiases of the world keep telling us: Republicans have all the leverage because they don’t actually care if the government stops working. So what’s the end game here? Can the Democrats “win” this fight? Can it teach us anything about the broader argument about tactics in the liberal coalition?
Update: Just after this was posted, this happened.