‘Essential’ Air Subsidies Survive in the House

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The $200 million Essential Air Service program subsidizes airlines to provide service to rural communities. The program, which was supposed to be temporary, was created when the federal government deregulated the airlines in 1978. As is usually the case with a “temporary” government program, EAS subsidies have become a permanent handout.

Last night, an amendment to the House THUD appropriations bill introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) that would have finally terminated the EAS was defeated. In the 164 to 238 vote, all but 10 Democrats joined 77 Republicans to keep the program alive. Once again, bipartisanship wins and taxpayers lose.

Rep. McClintock’s speech on the floor of the House was excellent. In lieu of me expounding on why the Orwellian-named EAS program should have finally been put out of its misery, I’m going to turn the “floor” over to the congressman: 

If the House is to live up to the promises the Republican majority made to the American people to bring spending under control, some tough choices are going to have to be made. But this amendment isn’t one of them. This is about the easiest choice the House could possibly make: to put an end to the so-called “Essential Air Service” that lavishly subsidizes some of the least essential air services in the country.

This program shells out nearly $200 million a year – including $114 million of direct taxpayer subsidies – to support empty and near-empty flights from selected airports in tiny communities – most of which are just a few hours’ drive from major airports.

A reporter recently investigating this waste took one of these flights from Ely, Nevada and was the only passenger on the flight. Our constituents paid $1.8 million for this air service that carried just 227 passengers during the entire year! Ely is a three and a half hour drive from Salt Lake City International Airport.

Thief River Falls, Minnesota is considered an Essential Air Service airport, despite the fact it is just an hour and nine minutes drive to Grand Forks International Airport in North Dakota. Hagerstown is just 75 miles from Baltimore, but subsidizing their flights is considered an “Essential Air Service.”

It is true there are a few tiny communities in Alaska – like Kake’s 700 hearty souls – that have no highway connections to hub airports, but they have plenty of alternatives.  In the case of Kake, they enjoy year-round ferry service to Juneau.  In addition, Alaska is well served by a thriving general aviation market and the ubiquitous bush pilot.  Rural life has both great advantages and great disadvantages, and it is not the job of hardworking taxpayers who chose to live elsewhere to level out the differences.

Apologists for this wasteful spending tell us it is an important economic driver for these small towns – and I’m sure that’s so – whenever you give away money, the folks you’re giving it to are always better off. But the folks you’re taking it from are always worse off to exactly the same extent. Indeed, it is economic drivers like this that have driven Greece’s economy right off a cliff.

An airline so reckless with its funds as to manage its affairs in such a ludicrous way would quickly bankrupt itself. As we can plainly see, the same principal holds true for governments.

This was a temporary program set up when we deregulated commercial aviation. It was supposed to last a few years to give rural communities a chance to adjust.  That was 34 years ago.

In 2010, in one of the most decisive Congressional elections in American history, voters entrusted the House to Republicans with a crystal clear mandate: STOP WASTING MONEY.

Last year, the House responded to this mandate by voting to eliminate EAS subsidies in the FAA re-authorization bill. What is the response of the House appropriators? They do not eliminate funding. They do not reduce funding. No, they increased funding by 11 percent in a single year, to a new historic high.

Our nation is borrowing 40-cents of every dollar it is spending; it has lost its triple-A credit rating; its taxpayers are exhausted; its treasury is empty; its children are staggering under a mountain of debt that will impoverish them for years to come – and yet the House Appropriations Committee, in defiance of last year’s decision by the House to eliminate this program, has just voted a double-digit percentage increase for a program that flies near-empty planes around the country!

I think we can do better than that. I offer instead this amendment to stop fleecing taxpayers for this expensive folly.

I believe that House Republicans will prove themselves worthy of the trust the American people have given them in this perilous hour in our nation’s history. I believe that House Republicans can summon the fortitude to save our country from financial wreck and ruin.  And I offer this amendment to put that faith to a most modest test.

The House failed the test, but kudos to Rep. McClintock for his continuing efforts to terminate federal programs. As I’ve discussed before, roll call votes on bills or amendments to terminate specific federal agencies and programs help the taxpaying public separate the frauds from the friends.