WASHINGTON — Oklahoma lawmakers criticized the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday for furloughing air traffic controllers and said other actions could have been taken to save money under mandated budget cuts.
“Anytime a bureaucracy is forced to cut, they will find the one thing people want most, and there's no better example of this than the FAA,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Meantime, the Obama administration signaled Wednesday it might accept legislation that would eliminate Federal Aviation Administration furloughs blamed for lengthy delays affecting airline passengers, while leaving the rest of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in place.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he hoped for a resolution before the Senate begins a scheduled weeklong vacation at week's end.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood saying the FAA should implement a plan that requires some personnel not related directly to aviation safety to take more furlough days so air traffic controllers can stay on the job.
The FAA has 15,000 air traffic controllers and 32,000 other employees, Coburn said.
“The FAA employs a variety of lawyers, public affairs specialists, speechwriters, administrative staff, congressional affairs staff, community planners, management and program assistants, and other employees that aren't immediately critical to FAA's mission,” Coburn said in his letter.
“With adequate planning, it should be possible for these employees to shoulder more of the burden of sequestration, with less of a burden on the time and safety of the American people.”
The FAA began furloughing workers on Sunday, leading to delays at some airports. The FAA says furloughs are necessary to absorb the cuts that went into effect last month because 70 percent of its budget is personnel.
The FAA has a large presence in Oklahoma City at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, where air traffic controllers are trained, and some contract workers have already received layoff notices there.
At a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta addressed the question of whether the agency could furlough some workers more than others.
Huerta said 84 percent of FAA's employees are in the field dealing with “safety-critical functions.” Imposing more furlough days on some of them would be just as disruptive to aviation safety as the current plan, he said, since airlines operate in a network of various sized airports that require a range of services.
Moreover, he said, unequal pay cuts could have an effect on morale.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the subcommittee, questioned Huerta about the FAA's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Cole said he didn't understand why the FAA would base the budget on the premise that the mandated budget cuts — known as the sequester — would be replaced before the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
Making that assumption, he said, is what got the government in the situation it's now in, since most people assumed the automatic budget cuts wouldn't take effect in March.
“It's a long way from certain that the sequester will disappear,” Cole said.
Some Republicans on the subcommittee questioned why the FAA didn't notify the public and airports sooner about the furloughs. Huerta said the FAA has been warning about the impact since February.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., defended the FAA, saying she was amazed that members of Congress would blame the agency when Congress had the power to stop the budget cuts.
In the Senate, Inhofe said the FAA's operations budget has more than doubled since 1996 and questioned why it couldn't have found budget cuts to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers.
“Somehow … there's not enough fat in a bureaucracy that's more than doubled in the last 15 years that they have to take these drastic steps,” Inhofe said.