Cross-posted from the NY Daily News opinion page
At LaGuardia, one of the nation's busiest airports, this workweek began with customary hustle and bustle--except among the workers demolishing the airport's old control tower.
At 8 p.m. on Sunday, the contractor hired to oversee this essential modernization project delivered a painful message to his 40 employees: Because the United States Congress didn't do its job, they were being turned away from theirs.
Today, 9.2% of our country's workforce is looking for employment. In addition to these 14.1 million Americans, many more are struggling to make ends meet as they work fewer hours for less pay.
In light of this harsh reality, Congress' failure to pass legislation authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to continue its regular business is devastating news for families across America.
Here are the facts. At a time when unemployment in the construction sector is in the double digits, Congress' inaction has forced the FAA to issue stop-work orders on dozens of control tower construction projects already underway, from Wilkes-Barre to Kalamazoo, from Gulfport to Las Vegas and from Oakland to Palm Springs.
The FAA was also on the verge of selecting contractors to build new towers in Cleveland and Fort Lauderdale. These projects are now at a standstill and could be forfeited altogether if this situation continues too much longer. Even worse, $2.5 billion slated for additional airport construction is sitting idle rather than paying salaries.
Furthermore, Congress' irresponsibility has left the FAA with no choice but to put approximately 4,000 public servants on unpaid leave in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This includes many of the agency's top engineers, scientists, planners, analysts and program managers.
The ripple effects of this crisis will be more destructive still. Middle-class households won't receive paychecks while their bills mount. Contractors will stop buying supplies. Small-business owners will buy fewer goods.
With our fragile economy teetering, these are blows America simply can't afford.
Lucca Toscano, a supervisor on the LaGuardia tower project, summed it up perfectly: "It wasn't easy telling our workers that we've been shut down because of a fiscal situation in Washington. Some of these guys just got back to work after a long time. They're asking me, 'How do we explain this to our families?' I don't know what to say to them."
Of course, Congress still has time to avert the worst. On 20 separate occasions since 2007, it has passed short-term measures to keep the FAA up and running. This is a deeply flawed solution because it creates enormous uncertainty for states, airports and contractors, but at least it keeps American workers on the job site. There is absolutely no reason that Congress can't pass another temporary fix while it works out the details of a longer-term vision for the future of America's air transportation system.
I've been a Republican for my entire life--in the Illinois legislature, as a congressional staffer and as a seven-term congressman. I accepted President Obama's invitation to serve our country because I believe that some things are more important than partisanship. Now is the moment to put nation ahead of party. Thousands of jobs, the best aviation system in the world and the United States' economic recovery hang in the balance.