FAA Nominee’s Military Past Complicates Path to Confirmation

  • 1958 law requires FAA administrator to be a civilian
  • Ground stop heightens Democrats’ drive to confirm Washington

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The White House touted Phil Washington’s 24 years of experience in the US Army when tapping him to run the Federal Aviation Administration last year—a fact that could threaten his path to confirmation.

The FAA by law needs to be headed by a civilian, which has forced retired military officials to either give up their retiree status or seek waivers to secure the role. Washington, currently CEO of Denver International Airport, is retired from active duty.

The incoming top Republican on the committee overseeing his confirmation says that without a waiver or change in law enacted by both chambers, Washington is ineligible— the latest step in GOP efforts to oppose the nominee. The waiver question comes as some Democrats have called moving his nomination forward a priority after a system outage this month caused a major ground stop of flights.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 11, 2023.

Washington’s military status could add another wrinkle in his already muddled confirmation process. Republicans have also scrutinized Washington’s aviation experience and ties to a Los Angeles search warrant.

FAA Nominee Denies Wrongdoing as Senators Weigh Allegations

“The Senate has repeatedly required adoption of a waiver when an FAA administrator nominee was a retired member of the military,” Ted Cruz (R-Texas), incoming ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said. “But with Phil Washington’s extreme lack of aviation experience and the scandals surrounding him, I am unsure how Democrats plan to obtain passage of such a waiver.”

A White House spokesperson defended Washington, saying he is a qualified public servant and administrator who retired from the Army in 2000 and has served in a civilian capacity since, without specifically addressing questions on the statute requiring civilian leadership. The spokesperson said it was time to move forward on the long-pending nomination.

Lawmakers from both parties have supported waivers for ex-military officials in the past, but Republican control of the House could give them a chance to reject such a request if needed. While the Democratic caucus’ 51 votes in the Senate give them the power to confirm nominees without GOP support, a waiver would have to pass through both chambers and would be subject to a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Administrator History

The FAA administrator needs to be a citizen, a civilian, and must have aviation experience, according to a US law from 1958.

The conference report for the law interpreted a civilian in the “strictest sense of the word” as someone not on active, retired, or extended active duty. The intent was to assuage concerns “about establishing the supremacy of civilian control of airspace,” according to a committee report from 1992.

A handful of nominees have required waivers, most recently Thomas Richards who was administrator in the 1990s. Some nominees have given up their retired military status to take the role, such as Elwood Quesada, the first administrator, in 1958.

The last administrator, Steve Dickson, notably didn’t need a waiver despite serving in the Air Force for 11 years. Members of the Armed Forces are eligible for retirement status only after 20 years.

Waiting Game

The temporary ground stop of flights this month due to an outage of a notification system at the FAA heightened some Democrats’ desire to get a Senate-confirmed leader at the agency. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would push to move forward Washington’s nomination and “break this logjam” for the Senate to hold a hearing after the FAA system outage.

Biden to Reup FAA Nominee in Face of Uphill Confirmation Battle

“With recent events, including airline troubles and last week’s tech problem, this agency needs a leader confirmed by the Senate immediately,” Schumer said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the committee overseeing his nomination, said Washington’s hearing is a priority. The spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment on Washington’s civilian status.

‘Deeply Troubling’ Meltdown at FAA Set for Lawmaker Probes

The FAA system outage had the opposite effect on Republicans as GOP lawmakers doubled down on their concerns. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee last year, said Washington doesn’t have adequate aviation experience.

Wicker has said in multiple tweets that a new nominee is needed. Washington has run Denver’s airport since 2021, and had mostly surface transportation experience before that.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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