House rejects bid to slash rural airline subsidies

The House has turned back an attempt by a tea party-backed GOP conservative to slash taxpayer subsidies for air service to isolated smaller cities and towns that can cost hundreds of dollars a ticket.

The 238-164 vote late Tuesday killed a bid by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., to slash the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flights to 120 communities in 35 states in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico and 43 towns in Alaska.

The vote came as the House debated a $107 billion transportation spending bill for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Republicans controlling the House had voted to eliminate the oft-criticized program last year while they considered renewing federal aviation programs, but a coalition of Democrats and Republicans representing rural America reversed the move in the Senate.

Despite modest changes to the program enacted earlier this year, its budget now would reach a new high — to $214 million — under Tuesday's legislation. McClintock's amendment would have eliminated $114 million in direct taxpayer subsidies; he was blocked under House rules from attacking $100 million in subsidies automatically financed by "overflight" fees paid by aircraft that fly over the U.S. but don't take off or land here.

"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," McClintock said. "Rural life has both great advantages and disadvantages, and it is not the job of hardworking taxpayers who choose to live elsewhere to level out the differences."

The program awards contracts, usually worth between $1 million and $2 million a year, to subsidize airlines that serve airports such as Altoona, Pa., Paducah, Ky., and Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Such subsidies can be quite modest, but can reach hundreds of dollars each way on a round-trip ticket from places like Ironwood in Michigan's Upper Peninsula or several towns in Montana.

The changes enacted earlier require that subsidized routes must average at least 10 passengers a day if they are to be renewed when current contracts are up, and new communities are blocked from receiving the subsidies. Last year, Congress prohibited subsidies from exceeding $1,000 a passenger. The savings from such steps will take a while to take hold but are likely to prove modest.

Supporters of the subsidies say having access to air service is crucial to the economies of rural towns.

"This program plays a key role in the economic development in many rural communities by ensuring that air service continues," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.

In fact, the wide reach of the program contributes to the sweeping support it gets, both from Democrats but also from conservative Republicans who suspend their anti-big-government rhetoric when their districts are affected.