Shuster pushing for FAA bill’s future

A push by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District to remake the nation’s air-traffic control system has drawn attention to the powerful congressman’s industry connections during an election year.

Shuster has lauded the sweeping plan, which would turn over air-traffic control to a private agency, as a government-slashing shift that follows conservative principles. But this week – as his representatives acknowledged the fight for the bill could be long and drawn-out – Shuster’s close ties to the airline industry made headlines once again.

“(Shuster) remains committed to downsizing government through conservative FAA reform, something that he has not just been working on this past year, but for the last several years,” spokesman Casey Contres said Friday in a written statement, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It’s a more complex issue than that, however. And with two months until the Pennsylvania primary vote, it could figure heavily in Shuster’s re-election fight.

Lobbyist ties

The latest round of attention followed a Tuesday article in Politico, the national news website, on a recent trip Shuster made to Miami Beach, Fla. According to the article, Shuster “lounged by the pool” with two industry figures: girlfriend Shelley Rubino, a lobbyist for industry group Airlines for America; and Nick Calio, the group’s leader, who had addressed Shuster’s committee before the trip.

“Attendees said they looked as if they were traveling in a pack,” the article stated.

Critics leapt on the story, noting that Airlines for America pressed for the FAA reform bill and other legislation Shuster has proposed. Shuster’s primary challenger, real estate developer Art Halvorson of Manns Choice, immediately called on the eight-term congressman to resign.

“This is a sobering moment for the people of the 9th Congressional District, and the country, one that demands the resignation of House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster for unpardonable corruption, cronyism and pay-to-play government,” Halvorson wrote in a news release.

Halvorson, who lost a bid to unseat Shuster in 2014, has long called attention to Shuster’s industry ties.

Shuster’s office and his re-election campaign have dismissed the allegations, calling the Politico article a “tabloid story” and an example of “dirty Washington liberal tricks.” Shuster’s camp reacted similarly last year, when the same outlet first revealed Shuster’s “personal and private relationship” with Rubino.

On Friday, Contres stressed that Shuster was in Miami Beach for a political fundraiser benefiting his colleague, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. He noted that Shuster’s trip wasn’t paid for by any outside interest group; instead, Shuster’s leadership political action committee, Bill PAC, covered the costs.

Bill PAC’s largest contributors include airlines, aircraft manufacturers and unions representing pilots and air-traffic controllers.

While Halvorson struck out at Shuster’s alleged “cronyism,” Shuster’s representatives pointed out that the challenger doesn’t seem to have a clear stance on the legislation itself. Within a period of several days, Contres said, Halvorson has both opposed the air-traffic control privatization plan and backed “real privatization.”

“Halvorson’s latest anti-everything Shuster release … makes personal and false attacks that are some of the dirtiest this region has ever seen,” Contres said. “Art Halvorson has called on Congressman Shuster or other elected officials to resign over 15 times the last few years, so this is nothing more than another political stunt from a candidate desperate to make news.”

Halvorson isn’t the only one to criticize Shuster’s trip: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorialized on the subject last week, arguing that Shuster’s close ties to the airline industry make it hard to avoid allegations of favorable treatment.

A “poison pill”

Criticism of Shuster’s FAA plan has come from other quarters, as well, including from congressional colleagues angry about non-aviation aspects of the 273-page bill.

While Shuster’s proposal, House Bill 4441, almost exclusively deals with airlines and air-traffic control, one section would ban states from establishing their own rules limiting working hours for highway truck drivers, essentially setting a federal standard for the number of hours haulers could drive without a break.

It’s similar to a measure that was included in Shuster’s last major effort: His multi-year highway bill. Some in Congress, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., forced that measure out of the highway bill, arguing that it was dangerous to drivers.

But the trucking rule is back – this time as part of the FAA plan – and Boxer has once again stood against it.

“This terrible, anti-safety, anti-worker provision is a poison pill, and it has no place in the FAA bill,” she said, according to USA Today.

Highway safety groups and truck drivers’ unions have opposed the measure, as well, arguing that states deserve the right to set stricter limits on truckers’ working hours. If truckers are on the road too long without breaks, safety advocates claim, their crash risk increases.

The American Trucking Associations, a group representing hauling companies, supports the national rule in Shuster’s bill. The group has donated more to Shuster than to any other congressman’s campaign, according to federal filings, and has given thousands of dollars to Bill PAC this election season.

On Friday, Contres said the trucking measure was necessary to clarify conflicting state and federal rules on truckers’ working hours.

“Now we’re at another crossroads, and we need to take action for the good of our economy,” he said.

Major changes

On Thursday and Friday, word spread through the national media that Shuster’s FAA bill had died, or at least been shelved, as Congress sought a temporary, far less sweeping solution. “Independent air traffic control dies with whiff of impropriety,” Fortune Magazine announced, calling the loss a “black eye.” “Bill stalls out,” Politico said.

Contres fought hard against that suggestion. While the process could be slow and difficult, the bill is far from defeated, he stressed.

“With all legislation, especially one that makes the transformational changes Congressman Shuster is proposing that will reduce the size of the federal government and modernize our system, it takes time to move through the process and educate members of Congress,” he said. “So that’s where we are at right now.”

Halvorson wrote on his campaign website: “Unseemliness in and around the ballyhooed FAA-overhaul legislation drafted by corporate airline lobbyists has led to the measure’s demise.”

Campaign donations and financial ties to industries are common among members of Congress – especially those, like Shuster, who control influential committees. The question facing Shuster’s campaign is whether, in a presidential election year with skyrocketing support for candidates who oppose big business ties, that sentiment could extend to the 9th District.

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has prominently avoided donations from business, instead taking funds from individual supporters and giving personal loans to his own campaign. Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has drawn a large following as he criticizes frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street.

Halvorson has said he hopes to ride that anti-establishment wave when Pennsylvania Republicans vote in the primary this April.

For his part, Shuster has rejected the establishment label.

Discussing the FAA bill during a trip to the Norfolk Southern Juniata Locomotive Shops earlier this month, he laughed at the suggestion his plan didn’t match conservative principles, as Halvorson has suggested.

“If this isn’t a conservative idea, I don’t know what conservative is,” he said.