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Politics give air travel subsidies staying power

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — It is called the airport to nowhere and for years taxpayers have footed the bill.

On the outskirts of this faded steel town, the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport boasts a modern runway, a high-tech security area and even a trendy restaurant. It lacks one thing: passengers.

Each year, Washington’s Essential Air Service program pays about $1.6 million for three daily flights between here and Dulles International Airport outside of Washington. Most flights have 10 or fewer people on board and the airport is virtually deserted. Many travelers drive two hours to Pittsburgh, Pa., where fares are often lower and flights are plentiful.

Governments have long financed wasteful or even unnecessary programs, but at a moment when both parties seem to agree that spending is out of control, the durability of small-town airport subsidies, which have outlasted four presidents who opposed them, underscores the political difficulties of cutting even the smallest projects.

Subsidies for little-used airports and roads, help for peanut and cotton farmers and a plethora of other programs have survived thanks to powerful interest groups and strong bipartisan support in Congress.

The Johnstown airport’s name honors the late congressman who made sure his hometown got its fair share of Washington money.

The subsidy programs are as varied as warehouses that allow farmers to store cotton and peanuts at government expense until prices rise and an estimated $100 million tax break for owners of NASCAR racetracks.

Various private and government studies show that nearly $1.8 trillion over the next five years could be saved by eliminating or reducing spending on some of the subsidies.

“You can’t blame the survival of these programs on just Democrats or Republicans; it’s both,” said

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has proposed cutting several of the programs. “But if we can’t cut small programs worth millions of dollars that benefit a few, how are we going to make serious cuts and get this country on the right track?”

A close look at two programs highlights the age-old politics protecting government spending.

The peanut and cotton storage program, which costs $1 million a year, has repeatedly survived cuts thanks to bipartisan support. Under the program, the government picks up storage costs for cotton and peanut farmers when they defer selling crops until prices rise. The peanut storage credits have been around since 2002. The cotton subsidy dates to the 1990s.

President George W. Bush tried to eliminate the storage credits in 2008, specifically mentioning them when he vetoed the farm bill. But his veto was overridden by a bipartisan coalition of rural lawmakers who supported farm programs and legislators from urban areas who backed food stamp and school nutrition programs.

The Obama administration has twice tried to kill the storage program, but the National Cotton Council and the American Peanut Shellers Association, as well as lawmakers from cotton and peanut producing states like Georgia and Florida, teamed up to save it.

The program’s biggest champion has been Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., whose district has many of the state’s nearly 3,000 peanut farmers. Bishop, a member of the Appropriations Committee, has for five years blocked efforts to cut the program, taking to the floor last month to denounce amendments to eliminate the credits.

“I’m in favor of making the necessary cuts needed to reduce our debt,” he said in an interview. “But it shouldn’t be made off the backs of farmers, the people who produce our food.”

Bishop’s allies include Rep. Jack Kingston and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans from Georgia. When the program was due to expire in 2007, Kingston, who is chairman of an agriculture appropriations subcommittee, pushed to continue it. After the White House tried to scrap the payments last year, Chambliss, a member of the Agriculture Committee, said the administration was “unfairly targeting farmers.”

But in an email statement last week, Chambliss indicated that the program might not escape the congressional ax.

“Everything must be on the table, and everyone must share in the budgeting pain,” he said.

Like the cotton and peanut payments, the Essential Air Service program is a survivor.

The program began in 1978 as a $7 million effort for 10 years to help small towns keep air service when airlines were deregulated. By 1996 it was a permanent program, and now costs about $200 million a year covering 150 mostly small and rural communities.

After President Ronald Reagan failed to eliminate it in 1985, presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to cut or kill it, only to see Congress add money to the program. This year, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, both Republicans, proposed ending the program, but the Senate voted it down by a wide margin.

A 2009 government report found that low-cost airlines gave travelers more options than they had decades ago. Surveys by the Transportation Department show that in more than 90 percent of the communities, travelers expressed a willingness to drive 150 miles or more for cheaper fares.

Still, William Polacek, vice chairman of the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority, said the program was critical to growth and economic development in the area.

“Take away the flights and it would be really inconvenient for local businesses to get to other markets and for those who want to do business here,” Polacek said.

Airport and aviation groups have repeatedly rallied in opposition to any cuts in the program.

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, described the program as a modest government investment.

“It’s called essential for a reason,” Cohen said. “In many of these areas there is no other way to travel other than to drive for hours.”

A powerful coalition of rural and urban Democrats and Republicans agree and have managed to save the program, even increase its financing this year to $200 million, up almost 50 percent.

When McCain proposed ending the program, he faced opposition from rural Republican lawmakers in Kansas and Mississippi who joined Democrats from Nebraska and West Virginia. The coalition drew support from senators like Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who said eliminating the subsidy would cost jobs and stifle growth.

The Senate did agree to scale back the program to fewer cities. A House-approved bill would reduce financing for the program until 2013, before eliminating it except in Alaska and Hawaii.

The House and Senate will work out their differences but already a bipartisan effort lead by Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine, with 26 other lawmakers, is under way to preserve the program.

Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington, predicted the subsidies might yet survive.

“These programs are like vampires, you just can’t kill them,” Bixby said. “Just when you think there are dead, they manage to rise up.”

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