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Congress jets away; $1 billion flies away

Would you scoot out of town for a month's long vacation and drop $1 billion in income?

No. And you'd probably stick around a few days to collect income with a whole lot fewer zeroes in it.

But that exactly what Congress, fresh off the debt ceiling deal that nobody liked but everybody had to have, did Tuesday.

Lawmakers have been in a standoff over a short-term funding bill that would end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, a shutdown that has brought 200 construction projects to a screeching halt and thrown 4,000 FAA employees out of work in the form of furloughs.

So far, that has cost the U.S. government $200 million in taxes that couldn't be assessed because the operating authority of the FAA has expired. Estimates are that while congressional members are back at home trying to shore up support for their re-election campaigns, another $1 billion in tax revenues will vanish.

Now, over the past several months we've heard a lot about responsible fiscal stewardship and what it means. Well, one thing it sure doesn't mean is leaving money on the table because you were in a hurry to get out of town.

It would be one thing if consumers were getting a break from the tax, which runs about 10 percent of the cost of a ticket. But consumers aren't. They're still paying full freight.

That's because airlines, which don't mind sharing extra costs with consumers, mind very much when it comes to sharing a windfall. What most airlines have done is they have jacked up the costs of their tickets so that the percentage that was going to the U.S. government is now streaming into their bottom line, which collectively has been $440 million in the hole for the first half of 2011.

A nice $1 billion windfall is just the thing, though we wouldn't be surprised to see a few million of that end up in some congressional campaign war chests as a thank you for flying on out of Washington.

What's holding the FAA bill up -- besides the vacationing lawmakers -- is a dispute over subsidies for air service to 13 rural communities. The House bill includes $16.5 million in cuts that Republicans, who control the House, want. You can probably guess these cuts are things Democrats, who control the Senate, don't want.

Really? All of this over $16.5 million?

Of course, in Washington nothing's that simple. The real issue is a struggle over unions, one that has doomed the FAA, it appears, to be funded by an unending series of short-term resolutions. GOP lawmakers want a provision overturning a ruling last year by the National Mediation Board that says when airline or railroad employees vote on unionizing, a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of those voting determine the issue. Under the old rule, workers who did not vote were counted as no votes. Democrats say the GOP is using the small-airport subsidies cut in short-term legislation to force through what they see as anti-union legislation that President Obama has pledged to veto.

But no one has a satisfactory explanation for this. If you add up all the airline subsidies the U.S. government pays in a year, it comes to about the same amount the government lost in just the first week of this stalemate -- about $200 million. Now, we're going to lose another billion dollars on top of that.

Congress's inability to give the FAA a 21st short-term funding authorization -- stalled over a $16.5 million cut -- will cost the American taxpayers $1.2 billion, plus all the windfall of the lost taxes goes to the pockets of the airlines.

That about as fuzzy as math gets.