The House passed a transportation and housing spending bill that would boost funding by 11 percent for a government program that subsidizes air travel to rural areas, an initiative long criticized by budget watchdogs as rife with waste.
Lawmakers voted 261-163 to pass the fiscal 2013 appropriations measure. The bill would provide $214 million for the Essential Air Service, which pays carriers to continue flights to more than 100 small communities, such as Dodge City, Kan., and Huron, S.D.
Critics say the flights often are little-used and can cost taxpayers hundreds of dollars per passenger. The program “lavishly subsidizes some of the least essential air services in the country,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican.
On June 26 McClintock offered an amendment to cut $114 million from the program. His proposal divided his Republican colleagues, with some saying their constituents depend on the service, and the House rejected it, 164-238.
“It is the only way some of these airports stay open,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a freshman Republican whose district covers 69 counties in central and western Kansas. “It’s a rural issue.” Without the program, he said, his constituents would have to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest airport.
Overall, the spending bill would provide $51.6 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other programs. That would be a $3.9 billion reduction from the current fiscal year’s level and $1.9 billion below the president’s spending request.
Among the bill’s winners are Amtrak, which would get a spending boost of 27 percent, to $1.8 billion. Funding for Community Development Block Grants, a favorite of Democrats, would increase by $396 million to $3.3 billion.
Lawmakers pared other transportation and housing initiatives.
They rejected President Barack Obama’s request for an additional $1 billion for high-speed rail; ignored his proposal to spend $500 million on so-called TIGER transportation grants, which were created in the 2009 stimulus package to promote road, rail and port infrastructure projects; and denied his request for $150 million for the Choice Neighborhoods program, which is intended to promote development in blighted neighborhoods.
The administration has threatened to veto the measure, primarily because of a dispute over spending ceilings in the dozen annual appropriations bills needed to fund the government for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The White House has argued that Congress should adhere to the caps set in the debt ceiling agreement of last August. House Republicans have set lower spending limits.
The Essential Air Service grew out of the government’s deregulation of the airlines in the late 1970s. Congress, fearing carriers would abandon routes to small communities because they were unprofitable, began paying airlines to continue service.
The initiative was supposed to be temporary, to help ease the transition to a deregulated airline industry. Since the 1980s lawmakers have resisted efforts to cut the program. The latest unsuccessful bid came from McClintock, whose amendment was defeated earlier this week by a bipartisan coalition of 161 Democrats and 77 Republicans.
“It’s not surprising,” said Erich Zimmermann, a policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. “We expect that members will continue to protect this program because it’s a way to send money back home.”
In 2010, the subsidies amounted to as little as $6 per passenger for service to Cody, Wyo., and as much as $2,371 to Owensboro, Ky.
Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposed cuts would have been “devastating” for areas in his state that rely on the program to help spur economic development. Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman Republican from Arizona, also backed the program.
“Have you had a medical emergency?” said Gosar. “Have you been to rural Arizona? Do it one time and you’ll find out how the Essential Air Service is important.”
Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis said she would be willing to cut the program, though only gradually because she said local communities need to adjust to any changes.
“It’s simply something that takes time,” she said.
Funding for the program was one element in the dispute last year between House and Senate lawmakers that led to a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
House Republicans in a bill extending the FAA’s authority to operate sought to eliminate subsidies at 13 rural airports, including those in the states of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The Senate wouldn’t pass the extension.
About 4,000 FAA employees were out of work during the period, airport construction projects were halted and the agency lost at least $468 million in airline ticket taxes it could not collect.
A compromise to authorize FAA spending signed into law Feb. 14 included funding for Essential Air Service. The law says there should not be subsidies for flights averaging fewer than 10 passengers or at airports under 175 miles from a major hub.
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