Senate Democrats on Wednesday rallied behind President Biden’s long-delayed pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) while Republicans vowed to block the nomination.
The Senate Commerce Committee has slow-walked the nomination of Phil Washington, the CEO of Denver International Airport, amid questions about his aviation experience and an ongoing corruption investigation related to his tenure as head of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Biden nominated Washington to lead the FAA more than seven months ago.
The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator for nearly a year amid numerous challenges, most recently struggling with near collisions and a high-profile system meltdown.
At a Commerce hearing on Wednesday, Washington told senators he would aim to swiftly address pressing issues such as a flurry of drones entering the airspace and staffing shortages at the FAA.
“However, to accomplish all these things, we need permanent leadership at the top of the FAA to address the challenges that we have seen in the last several years,” Washington said.
Republicans aim to block nomination
Republicans on Wednesday criticized Washington’s aviation experience, arguing that his 20-month stint as an airport executive doesn’t qualify him to lead the FAA.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the committee’s ranking member, said that Republicans might be able to block Washington’s nomination.
While the nomination would normally require a simple majority vote in the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority, Cruz said that Washington’s military status necessitates a congressional waiver that would need the support of 60 senators and the GOP-controlled House.
Washington is a retired 24-year Army veteran, and federal law says the FAA administrator must be a civilian. Previous FAA nominees have had to secure a waiver or give up their retired military status, which comes with government benefits.
“On five occasions Congress has passed legislative waivers. … We would do the same for Mr. Washington if his record merited it, if he had experience in aviation safety. But it doesn’t,” Cruz said. “And if Senate Democrats force this nomination through without a waiver, a legal cloud will hang over every single FAA action.”
Republicans made their case by quizzing Washington about specific aircraft safety functions and noting that he was unable to answer most of them.
“The FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on the job training,” Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) said. “And for that reason, I’m going to be opposing your nomination.”
Republicans also pointed to a criminal investigation into allegations of favoritism in no-bid contracts Washington handed out as head of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. They noted that Washington was named in a federal lawsuit this month filed by a former Denver International Airport employee who alleged discriminatory and retaliatory practices at the airport.
“I think it’s fair to say that you would already be confirmed if there had not been serious, bipartisan questions about your qualifications and fitness for office,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Washington, adding that he was surprised Biden renominated Washington.
Democrats rally behind Washington
Democrats on Wednesday largely voiced support for Washington, arguing that the FAA needs a Senate-confirmed administrator as soon as possible and celebrating his job leading the world’s third-busiest airport.
They noted that several FAA nominees didn’t have an aviation background but were confirmed with bipartisan support, including former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. They argued that it’s a good thing Washington isn’t an airline veteran.
“He’s not an airline industry insider using his role as a position for the industry to police itself,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said. “The challenges facing the FAA are those of managing a large, complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization, and certainly in that respect he’s no novice.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, argued that the FAA and the aviation industry got “too cozy” in recent years.
Democrats cited the agency’s certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, which would later suffer technical issues that led to two disastrous crashes, killing nearly 350 passengers.
FAA faces series of hurdles
In January, the FAA suffered an outage to its pilot alert system, forcing the agency to ground all U.S. flights for the first time in two decades, prompting congressional investigations. The agency said that it needs to modernize its aging systems, but acknowledged the overhaul will take years.
The FAA is investigating a near collision on Monday between a private charter jet and a JetBlue airplane at a Boston airport. That comes after a near miss at an Austin airport earlier this month and another close call at a New York City airport in January.
Airlines struggled with delays and cancellations during some of last year’s busiest travel days and blamed summer disruptions on a shortage of air traffic control staff.
Southwest Airlines suffered perhaps the biggest meltdown in aviation history over the Christmas holidays, canceling nearly 17,000 flights after its own systems went haywire.
Meanwhile, the agency needs to adapt to an influx of drones and other aerial vehicles entering the airspace.
Billy Nolen, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, has been leading the agency since April 2022, when Trump-appointed FAA Administrator Steve Dickson stepped down. That leaves the agency without a permanent head as lawmakers work on FAA reauthorization legislation this year.