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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

GOP Hits Turbulence with FAA Claim

Party Lines Red InsertA number of Republicans are using misleading numbers when they say the Federal Aviation Administration should cut consultants and travel before resorting to furloughs that are causing airport delays.

For example, Rep. Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, says the FAA spends “nearly $500 million for consultants” and “$325 million in supplies and travel.” But the FAA says that it spends $21 million on consultants and travel expenses are limited to “operational travel,” including for safety inspectors.

White House officials say the furloughs are necessary to cut $637 million from the FAA budget this year to comply with sequester requirements. But Shuster contends in a press release that the White House is trying to make the sequester pain worse with FAA furloughs in order to pressure Republicans to make budget compromises that would end the sequester.

Shuster, April 19: We know that the FAA has the flexibility to reduce costs elsewhere, such as contracts, travel, supplies, and consultants, or to apply furloughs in a manner that better protects the most critical air traffic control facilities. Yet rather than take this approach, the Administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the traveling public.

The press release says the FAA ought to look at $2.7 billion in “non-personnel Operations costs” before furloughing personnel. Specifically, Shuster suggests the FAA ought to first cut from “nearly $500 million for consultants” and “$325 million in supplies and travel.” Shuster’s office told us the congressman was not suggesting that all of the consulting and travel budgets should be eliminated, but rather that they were examples of places in the budget where the FAA should be looking to trim before resorting to furloughs.

But those figures are misleading. The “consultants” figure, for example, comes from a line in the FAA budget (page 977) for “advisory and assistance services” for $514 million. But as FAA Administrator Michael Huerta explained in a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, only a fraction of that went to consultants.

Huerta, Feb. 27: The $500 million figure that is referenced, my guess is that what this represents is the universe of contracts that are included within our operations account, and those are not limited to consultants. In fact, our estimate is that about $21 million of that number is what is designated at, what we would truly be designated as consulting services, which represents only 1 percent of our total contract obligations for last fiscal year.

What is included in this number are some very enlarged service contracts, the largest of which is a program called FTI, our Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure program. What that program is, about a $228 million program, and what that is, is the telecommunications infrastructure that underlies the whole air traffic control system, which is provided to us by a private contractor, but for budget classification purposes, falls into this larger account.

We found this May 4, 2012, FAA announcement of a five-year contract with the Harris Corporation to provide FTI services for $225 million to $250 million per year. On its website, Harris explains what it does for all that money. To lump this and other FAA operations contracts under the umbrella of “consultants” — as Shuster does — is misleading.

As for travel and supplies expenses — which Shuster put at $325 million — the FAA budget calls for $154 million in “travel and transportation of persons” in 2013, $24 million for “transportation of things” and $133 million for “supplies and materials” (see page 977). Huerta testified that expenses for travel have already been cut 30 percent over the last year, and the budget category is now limited to operational travel. We cannot independently verify those cuts.

Huerta, Feb. 27:  The travel that we’re preserving is actually travel that is essential for carrying out our safety mission. For example, an aviation safety inspector needs to actually visit a facility to provide inspections or a tech ops employee actually needs to visit a facility in order to provide repairs and needed maintenance for our facilities. So there’s … a level of travel that is necessary for us to do our job, to preserve the safety of the system.

During another Senate subcommittee hearing on April 18, Huerta said the FAA did look first to cut contract and travel budgets before resorting to furloughs.

Huerta, April 18: We started first at our contract expenditures and looked across the board what can we do to dramatically reduce contract expenditures. And we focused on those activities such as the ones I mentioned that represent out-of-pocket cost, travel, information technology, and so forth.

We do have limits on our ability to reduce some contracts though, for example, our single largest contract is the FAA’s telecommunications infrastructure contract that is a services contract with a private company that provides critical communication services between all air traffic facilities. That contract is worth about $225 million on an annual basis. And so, we had to focus in those areas that would not, at the same time, seriously cripple the mission. But our contract savings alone were not able to get as to our required savings.

The FAA issued a press release stating that on April 23 there were “more than 1,025 delays in the system attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough.” The Washington Post reported delays of one to three hours at some airports in the Northeast, which then led to delays at airports around the country.

On April 22, the FAA emailed a joint statement from Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican but an Obama appointee, in which they said sequestration requires the FAA to cut “every eligible program, project and activity level.” But, he added, “70 percent of its operations budget is for personnel, so in addition to cutting contracts, stopping funding for low traffic towers and reducing travel, the FAA still needs to furlough its 47,000 employees to achieve these congressionally required cuts. Only Congress can stop these delays from continuing.”

Many Republican legislators, however, insist the furloughs and resulting delays are simply a White House gimmick to exert political pressure for a sequester deal, and Shuster’s figures on FAA consultants and travel expenses have become a frequent Republican talking point. The figures were cited in press releases by Reps. Dennis Ross, Sam Graves, David McKinley, Adrian Smith, Tom Cotton, Bob Latta and Virginia Foxx; and in a press release from Sen. Orrin Hatch. The figures were also used during an interview with Rep. Rodney Davis, and in tweets by Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Renee Flowers. And Shuster’s figures were cited in a Wall Street Journal editorial. In other words, they got around.

In fact, this is a talking point that has been in circulation since at least February, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talked about the FAA budget in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He urged the agency to “cut the waste,” citing “hundreds of millions of dollars spent on consulting contracts, on travel.”

We take no position on the sequester or the decision to furlough FAA employees, but Shuster’s claim — which suggests there is plenty in the FAA’s “consultant” and travel budgets to relieve the need to furlough employees — is misleading.

— Robert Farley