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John Mica’s pilot error

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican blamed for single-handedly shutting down the Federal Aviation Administration, sounded like a beaten man when he called me Thursday evening. 

The usually biting chairman of the House Transportation Committee spoke with remorse about the standoff, which caused furloughs of 74,000 people, delays to airport-safety projects, and the loss of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. 

“I’ve had a brutal week, getting beat up by everybody,” Mica told me, minutes after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal that would end the shutdown, at least until Congress returns next month. 

“I didn’t know it would cause this much consternation,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to get the broom and the shovel and clean up the mess.” Switching metaphors, he said he wanted “to unclog the toilet, but it backed up. So I don’t know what to do, what to say.” 

Like the debt-limit standoff, the FAA debacle confirmed that Washington’s wheels have come off. But the outcome was different. In the debt crisis, Senate Democrats and the White House accepted House Republican demands rather than risk default. This time, Democrats let the shutdown happen and then blamed Republicans. 

Under Thursday’s bipartisan agreement, Democrats accepted Mica’s conditions for keeping the FAA open for a month with the understanding that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would grant waivers nullifying the objectionable provisions. “I’m not happy about that,” Mica said, noting that it “thwarts” his efforts. But he knows he lost the PR battle. To repair the damage, he said he would introduce legislation to pay FAA workers for their days on furlough. 

Mica’s experience shows the high-risk nature of business in the new Washington, where even minor issues such as those in the FAA dispute can become conflagrations. With the loss of good will between the two parties, and the two chambers, ordinary disagreements mushroom into governing failures. 

Mica started out with a sensible aim: He wanted to clean up years of messy funding for the FAA. Lawmakers hadn’t been able to agree on issues such as rural-airport subsidies and landing slots at Washington’s Reagan National, so they kept the agency going with 20 stop-gap funding bills since 2007. 

But Mica overreached. Letting his anti-labor ideology take over, he tried to use the FAA bill to overturn a decision by the National Mediation Board to rescind an old rule that had made it unusually difficult for airline workers to organize. Mica knew Senate Democrats would resist, so he tried to create a bargaining chit: He drafted plans to cut funds for small airports in the home states of Reid (Nevada) and Jay Rockefeller (West Virginia), chairman of the Senate transportation panel. 

The Floridian publicly admitted his ruse. “It’s just a tool to try to motivate some action” on the labor rule, he told a group of airport executives last month, according to Aviation Daily. “I didn’t plan it to be this national issue,” he told me. 

Senate Democrats, seizing on Mica’s admission that the bill was a “tool,” refused to deal. They let the shutdown happen and railed against Mica after lawmakers left for recess. 

The Orlando Sentinel, near Mica’s district, took the congressman to task and said it was “pathetic” that “members of Congress now are enjoying their summer vacations, while some essential FAA inspectors are working without pay.” 

Mica was stunned when Democrats took Republicans “by the short hairs,” as he put it. “Quite honestly we did not expect that.” 

They should have. The 10-term lawmaker was operating under archaic rules. “In our business, you use your legislative tools ... and put a little leverage on it,” he said. “How else do I do it? Am I going to send them a bouquet?” 

But Mica, as much as anybody, created a culture of distrust, where staking out bargaining positions leads not to compromise but to warfare. And now he’s surprised?