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Chief transportation lawmaker stretches facts over FAA layoffs

By Phillip Swarts

Friday - 4/26/2013, 11:56am  ET

Flight delays have plagued some travelers around the nation due to air traffic controller furloughs by the Federal Aviation Administration as a result of the sequestration budget cuts.

How severe and serious those cuts have been depends on who you ask, but the House of Representatives' leader on transportation issues is encountering turbulence when trying to argue his points.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the FAA needs to look elsewhere for budget cuts.

"Given that the FAA’s budget increased more than 100 percent over the last 15 years, finding five percent in savings shouldn’t need to significantly impact our nation’s aviation operations," he said in a press release.

For starters, Shuster's math is a little fuzzy.  The FAA's budget records show it received $13.8 billion from Congress in 2002.  This year, President Barack Obama has requested $15.6 billion for the agency in 2014.  Although records aren't available online for the full 15 years Shuster suggests (going back to 1999), that's an increase of roughly 13 percent over 12 years - a far cry from the solid hundred the congressman claimed.

And Shuster's next point of contention may be too broad, as well.

"There are $2.7 billion in non-personnel Operations costs that should be examined before FAA personnel are furloughed," he said, citing $500 million spent on consultants.

But FAA officials say the $514 million, to be exact, isn't just for consultants.  Instead, it's roughly the entire contracting budget for the FAA to work with private businesses on a number of projects.

The largest is the Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure program, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a committee hearing in February.

"What that program is, about a $228 million program, and what that is, is the telecommunications infrastructure that underlies the whole air traffic control system," the agency head said.

The company that contracts with the FAA, Harris Corporation, explains on its website what exactly it does for the $228 million.  It's not just consulting, but physical structure and support as well.  The FAA lists that Harris provides items such as telecommunication hardware and satellite services

Fiscal watchdogs are always concerned that government agencies may spend too much on private contractors.  But in the FAA's case, it's not blowing $500 million on consulting like Shuster suggests.  Huerta estimated the FAA's actual spending on private consultants was about $21 million.

Republicans have accused Obama of using the FAA layoffs as a way to pressure lawmakers to pass his budget proposal.  Shuster obviously has concerns about controlling the FAA's budget while maintaining safety.  But his claims have missed the mark and started to stretch the facts.  That's why Rep. Bill Shuster wins the Whopper of the Week, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to examples of half-truths and misstatements from lawmakers.

Shuster, however, may find solace in one of the last acts Congress took before leaving town for a recess. On Friday, lawmakers passed a bill that would give the FAA greater flexibility in deciding how to trim its budget and likely result in fewer furloughs of air traffic controllers.