ATC privatization
The DOT IG has been asked to investigate whether certain U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials violated lobbying laws in a push for support of a proposal to carve the air traffic control organization out of the FAA. (Photo: Bill Carey/AIN)

House Dems Ask Inspector General To Investigate ATC Lobbying Efforts

The request, seeking whether DOT officials violated lobbying restrictions, ratchets up an already contentious battle over the ATC proposal.

Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking an investigation into whether certain U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials violated lobbying laws in a push for support of a proposal to carve the air traffic control organization out of the  Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Reps. Pete DeFazio (D-Oregon), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Nita Lowey (D-New York), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and David Price (D-North Carolina), the ranking member of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, yesterday formally asked the DOT Inspector General (IG) to investigate whether political DOT appointees “violated federal law, including the Anti-Lobbying Act.”

In an August 2 letter to DOT IG Calvin Scovel, the lawmakers noted language in the Anti-Lobbying Act that prohibits use of government funds for means “designed to influence in any manner a member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or any official of any government to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation.”

But, the lawmakers added, “It has come to our attention that at least four DOT political appointees have contacted members of Congress, nonfederal stakeholders such as aviation association representatives and airport sponsors or both to gain support for H.R.2997, the 21st Century AIRR Act, which includes a controversial plan to privatize our nation's ATC system.”

They cited emails, written materials, and telephone calls made in this effort, pointing to one email from a DOT official that said “…with each of its major concerns addressed in the AIRR Act, the general aviation community has no substantive basis to oppose freeing America's air traffic control system from an unwieldy agency and unpredictable funding.”

They also pointed to written materials, a DOT website and official social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter “with the unambiguous intent of encouraging members of the public to support ATC privatization…[and] even when viewed in the light most favorable, these e-mails, telephone calls and other activities are highly irregular, at best.”

The letter did not specify the DOT officials involved, but Chris Brown, who recently joined the FAA as assistant administrator of government and industry affairs, sent an email recently, saying, “It’s time for the U.S. to join most of the industrialized world and separate its ATC system from the agency that also provides safety oversight. With major benefits and protections included in the AIRR Act, the general aviation community is best served by an air traffic control system operated by a separate entity governed by system users rather than bureaucrats in Washington.” Brown previouslyserved as staff director for the House aviation subcommittee and vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America.

A DOT spokesperson responded to the Democrats’ allegations, saying, “The department has shared factual information in support of the president’s air traffic control reform initiative with members of Congress and other stakeholders in response to questions and issues that have frequently come up. This has been done in compliance with the Anti-Lobbying Act.” The FAA deferred response to DOT.

The push by FAA/DOT officials has marked a departure from the neutral stance the DOT and FAA had taken in recent years on the issue. But it also comes as the White House has wholly embraced the concept of a user-funded independent ATC. In fact, President Donald Trump so strongly endorses the concept that he held a press conference in the White House to roll out his own proposal.

The request for the investigation, which comes from the chief opponents to the ATC proposal in the House, ratchets up what has already become a contentious, hard fought battle on Capitol Hill on the ATC issue. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders have worked hard to secure each vote, while opponents continue to press upon members to reinforce opposition. Both Democrats and House and Senate appropriators on both sides of the aisle have opposed the concept.

Rep, Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the co-chairman of the House General Aviation Caucus, has strongly backed the concept, saying protections that have been added secured his support. But fellow caucus members have been resistant, including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who wrote in his weekly column last week: “The FAA has worked well for our nation for many years. If it’s not broke, then don’t try to fix it.”