WASHINGTON – As President Trump braces for potentially explosive congressional testimony this week from ex-FBI Director James Comey, the White House on Monday kicked off a week-long promotion of various infrastructure proposals, starting with a long-shot plan to privatize the nation's air traffic control system.
Hailing "a great new era in American aviation," Trump said his plan would reduce the number of flight delays and wait times that cost consumers millions of dollars. "We live in a modern age," Trump said during a ceremony at White House, "but our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past."
While specifics on how to upgrade the nation's roads and bridges are still being developed, Trump on Monday said he would urge Congress to pass a plan to put the nation's air traffic control system in private hands. It calls for creating a private, nonprofit corporation, with airlines contributing fees rather than the taxes they now pay the government to cover the approximately $10 billion annual cost for air-traffic control.
“After billions and billions of tax dollars spent, and the many years of delays, we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work,” Trump said. “Other than that it’s quite good.”
In the coming days, Trump and other administration officials will call on states, cities, and private companies to pay more for rebuilding roads, bridges, railways, airports, and other types of infrastructure. The schedule includes meetings with members of Congress, a Wednesday speech in Cincinnati, and an "infrastructure summit" Thursday with various governors and mayors at the White House.
Some Democratic lawmakers said Trump really doesn't have an infrastructure plan. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a tweet that Trump "is NOT proposing money for infrastructure. It's tax cuts for financiers, privatizing public property. Not infrastructure."
And the Senate's top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump's infrastructure ideas boil down to "privatization," which means "less construction and far fewer jobs, particularly in rural areas. It means Trump tolls from one end of America to the other."
Thursday is also the day Comey is set to testify before Congress, a high-profile event likely to center on the ongoing investigation into links between Trump's presidential campaign last year and Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats.
In firing Comey last month, Trump cited performance issues, while critics accused him trying to close down the Russia investigation. The Justice Department later appointed ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation.
Associates of Comey said the former director kept notes of his conversations with Trump, including of a February meeting in which the president asked Comey to lay off an ongoing investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – a topic that is sure to come up at the hearing.
Trump, meanwhile, reportedly told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that Comey was a "nut job," and that his dismissal would help get the Russia issue behind him.
With Comey on Capitol Hill, the White House appears to be trying to change the conversation.
Moving air-traffic control out of the Federal Aviation Administration has been debated periodically since the 1990s, but never approved by Congress. Trump’s proposal would be modeled on Canada’s system, which is run a private board of industry stakeholders rather than the government.
Trump’s principles seek to improve legislation approved in 2016 in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that never got a vote in the full House or Senate. The debate resumed as part of renewing FAA legislation that expires Sept. 30.
Hearings are scheduled Wednesday in the Senate and Thursday in the House.
The corporation’s 13-member board would begin with eight members appointed by the transportation secretary, with two representing airlines, two for unions, one for airports, one for general aviation and two for the government. Those eight would choose a chief executive officer, and then that board would choose another four independent board members. But no seats would be assigned to specific interests after the initial board is seated.
“There will not be designated seats by interest group," said D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure.
Airlines and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association supported the 2016 bill as a way to have more predictable funding than provided by annual spending fights in Congress that have led to furloughs and shutdowns in recent years.
“I strongly support the president’s continuing recognition that modernizing our country’s air traffic control service is one of the most important infrastructure investments we can make,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., whose 2016 bill laid the groundwork for Trump’s proposal, said May 24 of Trump’s budget.
Besides smoother funding, airlines and supportive lawmakers contend that the corporation would modernize equipment and training faster than FAA. Government watchdogs have criticized FAA for slow progress on shifting controllers from directing planes by ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS.
But the proposal has critics among airlines, general-aviation groups and in Congress.
“There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between President Trump’s plan and Chairman Shuster’s proposal, both of which would hand over America’s skies to a private corporation, free of charge,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J.
The top Democrat on Shuster’s committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has argued that airlines would dominate the board and shouldn’t be trusted because of their own technology failures that cancel thousands of flights.
Delta Air Lines opposed the 2016 bill because of concerns it would disrupt air-traffic control at a time when FAA is making improvements.
General-aviation groups opposed the legislation because of concerns about how they would be charged under the private system and the possibility that airlines would be favored over private pilots at busy airports.
In describing the plan, a statement from the Trump administration said all users of the system would pay their fair share, but it assured access to general aviation and to rural communities.
The leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides with House counterparts how much to spend each year on FAA, said the proposal doesn’t appear to make sense. Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a Feb. 28 letter that consumers would have no recourse for complaints or mistreatment as they currently enjoy through the Transportation and Congress.