In a political climate that most describe as toxic, an unlikely and relatively small dispute has continued to make headlines and perhaps forced a compromise that has eluded the Congress up to this point.
The failure to reach agreement on an Federal Aviation Administration funding extension shut the agency down last weekend, though controllers have remained on the job and travellers have not yet been inconvenienced.
However, the lack of funds put 4000 non-essential FAA employees out of work and stopped the flow of funds to airport projects nationwide, affecting as many as 70,000 construction workers across the nation. And it is the stories emerging from this group that have given the Congressional failure such prominence.
Since the beginning of the recession, construction has been especially hard hit and unemployment in that sector is well above the national average. Though most Americans have not been inconvenienced by the shutdown, the fact that legislators failed to act and then recessed until September, leaving those workers in limbo for nearly a month, caught both media and public attention as being particularly arrogant.
More traction than debt bill
While the debt ceiling bill had and will continue to have lasting ramifications, few of those will be evident in the near term, and the dire consequences of a failure did not develop.
However, with airport projects nationwide, the effect of the work stoppage became both national and, more importantly, local news. Tales like this one from an out of work construction employee in Oakland, CA, appeared across the nation and put a local face on what had previously been seen as another “Washington problem”.
"They told us on Friday not to come in on Monday," he said. "I have a daughter in college. I need a job. I need to stay busy. But because of the political atmosphere, I got my job shut down."
As a result, what had been seen as a standoff in Congress, at least until September, has now caused legislators to reconsider and the President has urged them to reconvene to deal with the situation.
Late on Thursday, August 4, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued the following statement:
“I am pleased to announce that we have been able to broker a bipartisan compromise between the House and the Senate to put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work. This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain. But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”
And some hours later a decision had been reached. Mr Reid announced that the Senate, whose members are out of Washington, but technically not recessed, will pass the House version which includes the suspension of EAS subsidies.
But, of course, in the current environment, there is a kicker. The President has the ability to instruct the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, to “waive” those provisions, which he will likely do. So the House version will pass but the points of contention will be waived for the short term.
The net result is that those currently out of work may return to their jobs as funding is reinstated but the core problem has only been kicked down the road for a few weeks until the next re-authorisation comes up in September.
Problem temporarily deferred and defused – but far from solved.
The airlines, which had been equally chastised for their behaviour by either keeping the collected taxes or raising fares to similar levels, will soon have to change. Passengers who paid tax but flew during the shutdown will get refunds from some but not others.
High-profile example of government bungling
What began as an obscure fight over a relatively small amount of money for subsidised airports has become a very visible and high-profile example of government bungling and poor management. The dispute was exacerbated as legislators left for a break while tens of thousands were out of work, and likely to remain so until Congress returned.
The outcry forced a remedial solution to avoid further disdain of the process but in September, newly sharpened knives will likely appear again.