The unacceptable face of Capitol-isms

Hades, they say, hath no fury like that of…Try lawmakers, if a House aviation panel hearing, or grilling, of administration liberalisers is a gauge.

All the objections were there: loosening the interpretation of limits on foreign control of US-flag carriers to nudge EC agreement on sort-of-open skies would: (a) endanger US national security by weakening military airlift participation (b) endanger US jobs because European airline workers are lower paid, (c) allow nationals of suspect nations like Nigeria to take over US airlines, (d) threaten motherhood and apple-pie production, and (e) cause weight gain.

Well, maybe not the latter two, but the proposal, in the form of an administrative notice of proposed rulemaking, would, and indeed already has, outraged the gentle sensibilities of the men and women of the congress. Take for instance, Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, who after repeatedly silencing the DoT’s Jeff Shane with the minatory phrase “I’m not through yet”, suggested that a foreign investor with a management stake could crimp a carrier’s security budget and staff.

A criminal courts judge in Houston until his election in 2004, Poe recalled that he had often had to deal with misunderstandings of the role of the courts. Shane offered this deferential interpretation: The division of labour between executive branch departments like DoT and Congress “is pretty clear: we interpret the law; you write it”, but Judge Poe was not placated. After all, he had just pledged Continental employees back home in Houston his support “to keep American airlines in the hands of Americans”. He told them: “When I look out across these runways, I want to see American-made Boeing aircraft, not European ones.”

Given the debate now burning bright in partisan hearts through Washington over presidential and executive branch prerogatives, perhaps that’s an arguing point, but then there’s Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who has followed aviation matters for nearly a decade, who called the proposal “claptrap”.

And there’s Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Dallas, who found the proposal “arrogant” in its scope and was offended by the administration’s admitted failure to consult the aviation subcommittee before issuing the proposal. “Tell me,” she asked Shane, “did you ever think to tell Congress or this committee” before issuing the plan? No one, responded the still-diplomatic Shane, regrets more the failure to communicate.

The State Department’s ever-diplomatic advocate, chief negotiator John Byerly, offered a bit of unintentional flattery. Byerly addressed the panel’s senior Democrat, the well-respected Jim Oberstar, as “Mr Chairman”, a title Oberstar held before the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

Not to be out-finessed, the 32-year veteran Oberstar quickly cut off Byerly’s apology with “no, that’s all right, I’ll take ‘Mr. Chairman”. Oberstar, who still has a chairman’s eloquence, did make the point that this is a serious issue. The DoT proposal, he said, was “artfully crafted, carefully, shrewdly worded and stoutly defended. But its purpose is to hand over US airlines at their most vulnerable to their international trade competitors”.

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