The Biden administration is redoubling its support for the president’s choice to head the Federal Aviation Administration, despite a tepid response from congressional Democrats and serious criticism of the agency’s technology failings after Wednesday’s air travel meltdown.
That computer failure, preliminarily traced to a corrupted database file, has given fresh ammunition to Republicans to lash out at nominee Phil Washington, whose aviation resume is relatively thin — and at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the agency.
Buttigieg and the White House both said Thursday that they support Washington, but Democrats on Capitol Hill have not been so full-throated, most notably Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who has yet to schedule a hearing on Washington more than six months after President Joe Biden nominated him.
Buttigieg spokesperson Ben Halle said Thursday that “the secretary absolutely supports Phil [Washington] and there should be a hearing quickly” on his nomination. Biden again sent Washington’s nomination to the Senate last week after it expired at the end of the previous Congress.
Republicans have criticized Washington, a longtime transit official and current CEO of Denver’s airport, for his paucity of aviation experience — in contrast to past FAA leaders such as Steve Dickson, the former Delta Air Lines pilot and executive who helmed the agency until March.
They renewed those attacks after Wednesday’s meltdown.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who led the Commerce Committee’s Republicans in the last Congress, has urged Biden to pick someone else, saying on Twitter that Washington “has no safety or aviation experience.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is expected to replace Wicker as the committee’s top Republican, said in a statement “the public needs a competent, proven leader with substantive aviation experience leading the FAA.”
Though Republicans have been publicly critical, Democrats in the Senate — including Cantwell — haven’t exactly given Washington an endorsement. Cantwell’s statements about Washington have mostly stressed how thorough a vetting she plans to give his nomination.
When Washington’s name was first mentioned in connection with a politically-tinged investigation in Los Angeles County in September, sparking the first Republican questions about his nomination, Cantwell said that “every nominee for this critical position is subject to the confirmation process, which includes a careful and thorough review of the individual’s qualifications,” and that Washington is “undergoing that process now.”
Cantwell’s reaction to Washington’s nomination has always been muted, even since the time of his nomination, when she said, “I expect and will require strong leadership from the next FAA administrator.”
On Thursday, Cantwell spokesperson Tricia Enright said his “hearing is a top priority for the committee” but could not provide clarity on when.
Sarah Feldman, spokesperson for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), said Thursday that he is “concerned about recent FAA issues” and “looks forward to questioning Mr. Washington about these issues at his confirmation hearing.” She added that he won’t make a decision “until after that hearing takes place.”
But the White House is still projecting confidence.
“FAA is a key agency with a crucial safety mandate,” a White House spokesperson who declined to be named said. “The president has nominated an experienced, qualified candidate who currently runs one of the busiest airports in the world to lead the FAA. And we continue to work with Congress to seek his swift confirmation.”
And Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper, who knows Washington’s work in Denver both at the airport and his previous job leading Denver’s Regional Transportation District, said Wednesday’s outage underscored the need for Washington to be confirmed quickly.
“The FAA needs a permanent Senate-confirmed administrator who knows how to get things done,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Phil Washington, who served for 24 years as a U.S. Army command sergeant major, is that person and the Senate should confirm him.”
Other than Cantwell, Hickenlooper and Tester, Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee contacted for this story did not respond or did not specifically address Washington’s nomination. Since his nomination, however, Hickenlooper has been Washington’s only staunch supporter pushing for his confirmation. Other Democrats have been more reticent, declining to respond to questions about the Los Angeles investigation and questions about Washington’s lack of aviation experience.
Washington did not respond to a request for comment through Denver International Airport. In late December, during an interview with CNN, Washington said “we’ll see what happens” when asked if he expected to be confirmed.
“Tomorrow’s not promised anybody, so we’ll see what happens,” Washington said. “And I can say this: Whatever job I have I’ll do the best that I possibly can.”
Former FAA chief counsel and acting deputy administrator Arjun Garg said the White House clearly still has confidence in Washington, who has experience leading large organizations, even if his aviation resume is small.
“It will put an extra emphasis on the point that’s been made that he has strong executive management capabilities, so he’ll really need to bring those to bear to correct the kinds of issues that we’re seeing right now,” he said.
Mark Dombroff, an aviation partner at Fox Rothschild LLP who previously worked in the FAA’s Office of General Counsel, said that while the administrator is the public face of the agency “at FAA, it’s the career people that really drive the system,” indicating that in-the-weeds technical expertise might not be necessary.
“I’m not sure that the person who fills the position of administrator really is the person who’s going to determine whether the software is corrupted,” he said. “It’s more who’s going to be out front talking to the media, talking to the public.”
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who was the top Republican on the House Aviation Subcommittee in the previous Congress and is expected to reprise the role in the new Congress, said Washington lacks “true, in-depth aviation experience” that could help the FAA solve problems like Wednesday’s computer system failure.
Though the House doesn’t have power over confirmations, Graves acknowledged that he “did not expect the administration to renominate the same nominee who clearly had problems” getting confirmed in the last Congress.