Will Ted Cruz have his way at FAA?


Will Ted Cruz have his way at FAA?

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His name may be Washington, but he’s not going there.

President Joe Biden’s nominee Phillip “Phil” Washington issued a statement on March 27 explaining why he had asked the president to withdraw his nomination to lead the Federal Aviation Administration a few days prior.


“I no longer saw a respectful, civil, and viable path forward to Senate confirmation,” the CEO of Denver International Airport said. “I faced cheap and unfounded partisan attacks and procedural obstruction with regard to my military career that would have further lengthened the already delayed confirmation process. With that said, I decided that for the good of the FAA and the country, I would withdraw my name from consideration.”

A Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee vote had been scheduled for March 22, but Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) had to scrub it when it became clear Washington would not have enough votes to be confirmed.

Washington had been nominated in July. He faced a long delay because of concerns about his light resume when it came to aviation and because of an old scandal. Washington was named in a search warrant in September in connection with his previous job.

Washington had been the head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority from 2015 to 2021. It was alleged that he issued a no-bid contract in the amount of $494,000 to a nonprofit group headed by one of Los Angeles County supervisor and Metro board member Sheila Kuehl’s friends to shore up her support.

The warrant, secured by then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, resulted in a search of Kuehl’s home. Local law enforcement looked for correspondence between Kuehl and several people, including Washington.

When news of that broke, committee member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) reiterated that Washington’s relative lack of experience in aviation had been a problem and promised “additional scrutiny” on Washington’s past employment. A lot of that scrutiny was then applied by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new ranking member of the committee in 2023.

When Washington complained of a “procedural obstruction with regard to my military career,” he was referring to Cruz’s statement in opposition to his nomination. In his prepared remarks, Cruz said: “Mr. Washington, as a retired member of the military, needs a waiver from the House and Senate to be eligible to serve, since federal law requires that the FAA administrator be a ‘civilian.’” He admitted that “on five occasions, Congress passed legislative waivers so retired military personnel could serve” and allowed, “We would do the same for Mr. Washington if his record merited it.”

“But,” Cruz added, “it doesn’t, given his virtually nonexistent aviation experience, poor management record, and legal controversies.” He also warned, “If Senate Democrats force this nomination through without a waiver, a legal cloud will hang over every single FAA action.”

Cruz has a reputation as an obstructionist. He once worked to help shut the government down in protest of Obamacare, for instance.

But in the Washington confirmation case, Cruz surprised several people, apparently including himself, by offering the Biden administration constructive criticism.

The Texas senator said that Republicans couldn’t back Washington, but he offered a nominee that they could support and that might just be acceptable to the White House as well. The best part: He’s already doing the job.

Billy Nolen is the acting FAA administrator who has a long background in aviation. To Cruz, that experience showed and led to a sort of “Eureka!” moment.

“We’re at the hearing with Billy Nolen, and I actually turned back to my staff, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about Nolen?’ They’re like, ‘He’s pretty capable.’ And I said, ‘Would it be crazy for me to suggest, right now, that they should withdraw Washington and nominate Nolan?’ And my guys are like, ‘No, that’s fine.’ And so it was an audible,” Cruz said on his Verdict podcast.

“This was not planned,” the senator said. “I leaned forward, and I said, ‘Let me say something right now. As I see Mr. Nolan, acting Administrator Nolan, answering these questions: They’re substantive. They’re real. I think that if the White House withdrew Phil Washington and nominated Mr. Nolen, he would in all likelihood be approved with a large bipartisan majority.'”

It remains to be seen if the White House will take Cruz’s advice, but Nolen was the Biden administration’s pick for acting administrator. For an administration concerned about representation, Nolen, like Washington, is black. He could very well become the first confirmed black administrator of the FAA.


Regardless of the White House’s decision, Nolen is using his position to try to address serious problems in American aviation. At a March 28 conference in Baltimore reported by SimpleFlying.com, he took up the problem of a half-dozen near misses at several airports.

“Going forward, zero has to be the only acceptable number for serious incidents and close calls,” Nolen said. “Air travel is coming back in a big way since the pandemic. But the long layoff, coupled with the increased technical nature of our systems, might have caused some professionals to lose some of that muscle memory.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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