Sunday, July 24, 2011

Unwarranted Apocolyptic Speculation

The Federal Aviation Administration is the United States agency responsible for air traffic control, aviation permits and licensing, regulatory enforcement and other air safety roles. It's kind of like Transport Canada and Nav Canada rolled into one. They are a government body, a subsidiary of the US Department of Transportation, so natually they are federally funded. The federal bill (bill as in proposed legislation, not as in a really, really large denomination banknote) that provided funding to the FAA expired almost four years ago, so ever since the agency has been financed through a series of twenty temporary extensions to that bill, as the parties involved haven't been able to reach a new long term agreement.

I would tell you what the contentious point was in the negotiations, but after so many iterations, it may be that the issues on the bill that won't pass are not the original issues. To prevent a bill from passing, or to force passage of legislation that opponents would otherwise vote down, American politicians can attach tangentially related riders to each others bills, and also name them, so that a bill proposing that no one under twenty-one be permitted to have a e-mail account could be called the "Anyone who opposes this bill is a pedophile bill of 2011" or a bill forbidding convicted pedophiles from working in ice-cream trucks could have a rider attached to it that forbade teaching kids under twelve what a condom was. So the people are discouraged from voting down either hypothetical bill lest they be branded pedophilephiles. My information on U.S. politics is largely derived from late night comedy shows, so check the comments for knowledgeable Americans explaining how this system makes sense.

Anyway, the new FAA funding bill seems to be held up by a point of labour relations, that would return airline and railroad workers to an older system of voting to form unions. The old system allowed unionization in a airline workplace only if a majority of eligible voters vote yes. That is, anyone who doesn't bother to vote is counted as a no. That sets apathy to the employers' advantage and seems to me to be open to abuse through intimidation, because employers can identify the unionizers through who attends the polls, so it jeopardizes the idea of secret ballot. The new system, only recently ruled valid, allows employees of airlines and railroads to form a union by a simple majority of only those voting. That goes too far in the other direction, in my opinion, because it allows a small group of committed unionizers to take advantage of widespread apathy and establish a union that wasn't generally wanted. I would propose a compromise that requires both a majority of votes cast, and a majority of the eligible voters to turn out. After all, if the majority of the workers can't be arsed to go to the polls to change their working conditions, I'm thinking those working conditions can't be so bad. It's still open to intimidation or employer tricks--e.g. manipulating shifts--to keep people from voting, but it avoids assigning opinions to people who didn't express them. The Democrats (the leftmost of the two main American parties) don't want to go back to the old way, so they want the labour issue removed from the bill, thus are preventing that bill from passing.

In retaliation, or some differently-worded political version thereof, the Republicans (the rightmost most of the two parties) have worded the twenty-first iteration of the extension to the old FAA funding bill to include a provision eliminating federal subsidies for airline service to thirteen rural airports, including of course airports in the constituencies of some prominent Democrats. I note that requiring market-based prices for service from rural airports would not cut people off from food or medical attention without air service. These are places like Ely, Nevada (four hours drive from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City), Glendive, Montana (three and a half hours out of Billings) and Morgantown, West Virginia (an hour and a half drive from Pittsburgh), all on paved, year-round highways. Each of those towns has its own hospital and real grocery stores. Morgantown seems pretty odd to be on that list. I think there are people in Toronto who have to drive more than an hour and a half to get to an airport with scheduled service. And the non-subsidized fares are dirt cheap. I found a round trip from Billings to San Francisco for $118! There must be some historical reason for the subsidies.

All of the above is ignorable background to what I think is the most interesting point, that if the dispute isn't resolved, the FAA's operating authority would expire. Air traffic controllers are deemed an essential service and would continue to work, but 32,000 other FAA employees: presumably inspectors, examiners, file clerks, janitors, approach designers, dangerous goods safety coordinators and all manner of other people I'm not thinking of would be out of work. I found it especially interesting that with the FAA losing its mandate in that way, they would also lose the ability to levy and collect fees. People I know in the appropriate level of US airlines are actually looking at ways to refund or stop charging FAA fees if this happens.

I'm pretty sure the delay is just a game of political chicken, and that the deadlock may be broken by the time this even posts, but it's kind of freaky to think that this is the way a country would go from a world power to a failed state. One by one government agencies would lose their ability to function. While a lot of what any given agency does might be unneeded bureaucracy, once the normal way to get a pilot licence has gone away, you'd presumably get one by paying a guy who kept the machine that prints them after his last paycheque bounced. Or maybe they'd consolidate and transfer the authority to another overworked agency, until the police or the military run everything.

Please forgive me, south-of-the-border (and north of the other one) readers for mangling your political system. Blame the news media, summer heat, and the desire to post this before it became entirely irrelevant, as opposed to after doing sufficient research.


Wayne Conrad said...

Fear not, intrepid 'Trix. If your analysis of our politics turns out to be pure insanity, that's not a sign that you've gotten it wrong.

Our politics is Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and the reign of Louis the XVI all rolled up one. The crazier it sounds to you, the more likely you've understood it.

Brandon said...

" check the comments for knowledgeable Americans explaining how this system makes sense."

I'm an American, and I like to think I'm knowledgeable, but I don't think this makes any sense. I suspect you could find hundreds of bills with names that don't reflect the actual meaning of the bill, but which are named solely for the purpose of getting votes (Patriot Act, for example).

"There must be some historical reason for the subsidies."

There is... it's called pork spending. Politicians get federal money set aside to be spent in their home district so their constituents will like them and reelect them. Which is precisely the problem we're having right now as the politicians try to figure out what to do about the budget. Their decision making is not along the lines of "What is best for my country?" but, rather, "Will the people back home still vote for me if I support this?"

Appologies for the rant.

Astroprof said...

As an American who knows something about the system, I can say that the only thing you mangled about describing it is that you forgot to mention that the legislators have the maturity level of 8 year olds. Keeping that in mind tends to explain a lot ...

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

I beg to differ with Astroprof, the cumulative majority of the politicians in the Congress of the USA have an age spectrum of 2-3 years old. Terrible Twos and Touchy 3's. They are sacrificing the middle class on the altars of the rich and infamous.

I don't feel good about 40K FAA workers being laid off because the idiots in DC can't agree. But I can tell you that the next elections will probably be a landslide for the party that has common sense. And that's not the Pub's. Who in their right mind would vote for a party who has a support base of people who want to turn this country back into a theocracy? We already have our constitutional rights trampled every time we go through an airport checkpoint.

Sorry for the rant. I'm tired of listening to the hate mongers and reading the drivel that my mom gets in her mail and scares her. She's 86 years old and doesn't need to be scared by these fools.

Rhonda said...

Who would vote for a party whose support base wants a theocracy? They have a very motivated support base, who generally have a very high turnout.

Remember, this is a country where if the president doesn't say "god bless america" often enough he's accused of being a muslim, or worse, an atheist. The folks who are deeply religious but don't necessarily (consciously) want a theocracy will take this into account, and vote for the theocracy in order to vote against those horrible baby-killing atheists.

(Er, sorry, I'll end my rant now. I've been spending way too much time in the southern US. According to the local paper the "most hated person" in the county is a member of the local atheist group.)

John Lennerton said...

Late night comics probably have the clearest views on the absurdities of our political system (and I use the word "system" loosely).

mattheww50 said...

I spent about 5 hours on an airplane about 20 years ago sitting next to a professional lobbyist. He was kind enough to point out to me the shift in the Political landscape that had taken place.

30-40 years ago, being elected was about leadership and public service. Today it is simply another job, and it is all about figuring out how to stay in office. Neither leadership or public service are part of the equation. Everything has become secondary to the need to say in office and on the 'gravy train'.

The House of Representatives is a very strange creature. It routinely has absolutely awful approval ratings, yet each member of the house has to win election every other year. So apparently the public thinks their representative is just great, it is everybody elses that is the problem.

If I called that a gross disconnect from reality, I would be be being polite. The problem is that the poltical system is now completely and thoroughly disconnected from reality.

D.B. said...

Seems to me, Aviatrix, that you have got it pretty much right, certainly better than most of us could do writing about Canadian politics.

We used to have a "sensible middle" of politicians, who would create a reasonable compromise. But that was before the Internet and talk radio, which have allowed the crazies of both sides (but most especially the far Right) to hijack the conversation. Now all pols (who I disagree are under-age emotionally, they rationally know what it takes to remain in office) must pander to them to get though their respective parties elections, and then to stand for their seat.

The result of all this are two parties who can't agree on what day of the week it is, who exist in separate political universes with almost no intersection. And the rational middle is held hostage by the extremists.

This has happened before - the political vitriol in the early 1800's was just as bad, but not as widely distributed due to lack of talk radio and the Internet (or even newspapers). The only (partial) answer I can see is longer terms, so that congressmen and senators don't have to face re-election so often, but that won't happen because the majority see the problem in other terms - "these guys are not doing what we want, so let's boot them out". And around we go again.

Cedarglen said...

Sorry Ms. A'trix. Amerikan politics is like that. You do have it right. Good legislation takes a LOT of time, often includes many irrelevant things and is often delayed because of the junk. The real cause is spelled Special Interests. Too many folks have some (small) Special Interest at stake, so the working legislation and functional rules sit idle while their interests are serviced. WHile all governments do this to a degree, the Amerikan process is one of the most cumbersome. For a non-native, but close neighbor, very sharp obversations, mam. You understand it a lot better than do most Amerikans! Thanks again for the fun posts. -Craig

DataPilot said...

That goes too far in the other direction, in my opinion, because it allows a small group of committed unionizers to take advantage of widespread apathy and establish a union that wasn't generally wanted.

OMG, sometimes it's a lot worse than that. Like, in my work situation, where some employees were recently forced into union coverage against their will and over their vocal objections. Then those union-covered employees were promptly furloughed, their pay was frozen, and now their health benefits are going to be cut. Never mind that the employees want to come to work every day, and our employer has the ability and desire to provide full pay plus benefits.

The really pathetic part about the situation is that many of the people that resisted union representation are not anti-labor at all. But they're stuck in a real-life scenario not unlike Aviatrix's hypothetical "Anyone who opposes this bill is a pedophile" bill -- except it's "Anyone who resists representation by XXXX union is a labor-bashing capitalist pig." All that our employees want is decent compensation for their work. They shouldn't have to suffer because some other union-represented workers have employers that are in financial crisis.

The bottom line it, being a political pawn here in the US just plain sucks. I'm sure that any FAA employee can tell you that.