9 min read

What Washington did this week

Washington is here to help you with your travel headaches — and other policy news you should know from this week.
What Washington did this week
Photo by Ashim D’Silva / Unsplash

Good morning! It’s Friday, July 21, 2023. The 2024 elections are 473 days away.

Perhaps like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about artificial intelligence and the changes that are coming to our society — including in my own field, journalism.

Just this week, the media industry has been roiled by the news that G/O Media (which owns The Onion, Gizmodo, and other sites) has been publishing error-laden pieces almost entirely generated by AI. Other news organizations are pushing ahead with AI partnerships, including a deal signed last week between the Associated Press and OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Google has been pitching executives at the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal on an AI bot — known as Genesis — that could help them generate news content. Several executives who saw Google’s pitch described it as “unsettling.”

As the journalism industry — like every industry — faces potential upheaval from AI, my prediction is that independent news outlets (including newsletters, podcasts, and the like) will play an even more essential role in the coming years. Readers will put a premium on content that they know is written by humans and that they can trust; some journalists will face threats to their jobs, while others will be uncomfortable co-bylining pieces with a chatbot. Increasing numbers of both will migrate, to some degree, to independent platforms, where more authentic, human-to-human relationships can be formed between writer and reader.

Here at Wake Up To Politics, I’m grateful to have built those kinds of relationships with many of you: there’s nothing I love more than opening my inbox and seeing notes from all of you — and being able to respond to your feedback, answer your questions, and discuss your criticisms.

If you want to support my independent, 100%-human-driven journalism, you can donate here on a one-time or recurring basis. If you want to share the newsletter with friends, you can encourage them to subscribe at wakeuptopolitics.com.

And if you ever want to chat, all you have to do is click “reply”: the newsletter is sent from my real email address (gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com), and I’m always happy to hear from you.

Now, to the news: Every Friday here at WUTP, I try to offer a look at what Washington did in the past week — which laws were passed, which executive actions were implemented — to give you a glimpse at the substantive issues your elected representatives are actually working on.

This week, I’m leading off with the FAA reauthorization bill. That may not sound like the most exciting topic — but I just finished looking through the nearly 800-page bill, and if you’ve ever been annoyed by your experience on an airplane, there are several provisions that could impact you. I’ll break them all down below.

One big thing: Congress seeks to address air travel woes

It’s been a tough year for air travel. Extreme weather, combined with pilot and air traffic controller shortages, have led to record flight delays and cancellations. Back in December, Southwest canceled more than 60% of its flights, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. United had similar problems last month. In January, all U.S. flights were temporarily halted due to a computer system outage. And there has been an alarming increase in near-miss incidents on runways.

After months of causing headaches across the country, these issues have finally made their way to Congress. Lawmakers have until September 30 to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that oversees civil aviation in the U.S. and employs almost every air traffic controller in the country. The House passed a bill on Thursday to reauthorize the FAA for the next five years; the legislation would address many of the problems that have lately plagued the air travel industry.

Unlike the recent House vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I covered in this space last week, the lower-profile FAA reauthorization push has been bipartisan at every step. The reauthorization bill, formally known as the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, advanced in committee by a 63-0 vote last month. It was passed by the full House this week, 351-69. 187 Republicans and 164 Democrats voted for the measure; 31 Republicans and 38 Democrats voted against it.  

Here are the provisions in the mammoth, 798-page piece of legislation you should know about. The bill would:

— Authorize $103 billion in funding for the FAA for the next five years.

— Increase funding for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which finances airport repairs and renovation, to $20 billion over five years, its largest boost in 20 years.

— Increase funding for the Essential Air Service (EAS), which subsidizes airlines to serve rural communities, to $1.5 billion over five years. (An amendment to defund the program received 49 Republican votes.)

— Require all airlines to submit a one-page document outlining the “rights of passengers in air transportation,” which would have to specify policies on compensation for flight cancellations and mishandled baggage.

— Fund the hiring of 1,800 new air traffic controllers. (Airlines have blamed the FAA’s lack of air traffic controllers for exacerbating flight delays and cancellations.)

Raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67. Airlines support the provision as a way to help alleviate the pilot shortage, while pilot unions are opposed, citing safety concerns.

— Require airlines to ensure, “to the greatest extent practicable,” that parents and children under 14 years of age are able to sit together for no added fee.

— Require the Transportation Department to establish an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights,” including standards that airlines would have to comply with to ensure that air travel is fully accessible to disabled passengers.

Require airlines to establish policies regarding “reimbursement for lodging, transportation between such lodging and the airport, and meal costs incurred due to a flight cancellation or significant delay directly attributable to the air carrier.”

Establish a federal “Runway Safety Council” that will study the recent near-misses on airport runways and propose potential reforms.

— Encourage the FAA to issue regulations setting a minimum seat size for planes. (The 2018 reauthorization also empowered the FAA to do this, but the agency declined, sparking a lawsuit from uncomfortable passengers. This time, if the FAA does not act, the agency is required to provide formal justification to Congress.)

— Repeal an Obama-era rule that requires airlines to show the full price of flights, including taxes and fees, in advertisements. The move, which cuts against a Biden administration effort to combat “junk fees,” was condemned by consumer advocates but applauded by the airlines, who note few other industries must comply with such a requirement. (A Democratic amendment to preserve the rule did not receive a vote.)

— Prohibit the FAA from implementing vaccine or mask mandates for FAA employees or air passengers.

What’s next: The Senate now must pass its own FAA reauthorization bill, and then the two versions must be reconciled before a compromise bill can be sent to the president. The Senate bill, which has a slightly heftier $107 billion price tag, has yet to advance in committee due to fierce disagreements over proposals that would:

Reduce the hours an aspiring pilot must fly to receive their commercial pilot license. Currently, pilots have to log 1,500 training hours to receive the license; 150 of those hours can be in a full-flight simulator. A proposal by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and John Thune (R-SD) would allow 250 of the training hours to be in a simulator.

Increase the number of flights at Reagan National Airport, the D.C. airport that most members of Congress fly into, by seven a day.  

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have lined up on both sides of both disputes. The Reagan airport fight has particularly inspired congressional attention, dividing lawmakers according to geographic — not partisan — lines. Lawmakers from the West and Southwest have fought for more flights into DCA, which would shorten their commutes. D.C.-area lawmakers are opposed to any changes, arguing that the airport is overly congested as it is. Delta and Southwest support the changes, while United and American Airlines are opposed.

The House opted to preserve the status quo in both cases: the chamber voted 243-191 against the pilot training changes and 229-205 against the Reagan airport changes. If the final Senate bill includes either provision, they will probably be the main sticking points in any subsequent negotiations between the chambers.

What else got done this week

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which would require the Supreme Court to create a code of ethics for the first time. The bill, which advanced 11-10 (along party lines), is unlikely to pass the full Senate.
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously advanced 2,699 military promotions, including the nomination of Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), a member of the panel, did not object — although he is expected to prevent quick approval of Brown’s nomination and the other promotions on the Senate floor, continuing his abortion-focused blockade.
  • The Federal Communications Commission announced a voluntary labeling program for smart home devices to certify that they meet the government’s cybersecurity standards.  
  • The Food and Drug Administration approved approval for the first-ever preventive shot that will be made broadly available to protect infants and toddlers against RSV, the top cause of hospitalization for young children in the U.S.

More news to know.

Cornel West’s third-party run is spooking top Democrats. (Gage Skidmore)

Judge Aileen Cannon has set a date for Trump’s classified documents trial to begin: May 20, 2024, right at the tail-end of primary season.

Chinese hackers breached the email account of Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley released an FBI informant’s unverified claim that the Biden family was involved in a $10 million bribery scheme.

Last month was the hottest June on record, according to the NOAA. July and August are likely to break similar records.

Cornel West’s Green Party presidential campaign is a “persistent object of concern” within the White House.

Plus, some recommended reads from this week:

  • David Byler busts five myths about the American electorate. (Washington Post)
  • Walter Shapiro writes that Sonia Sotomayor’s book scandal “illustrates a bipartisan reality of life in Washington in the twenty-first century: It is no longer enough to be powerful. You also have to be rich.” (New Republic)
  • Molly Ball receives extraordinary access to trace John Fetterman’s emotional journey since his stroke and Senate victory. (Time)
  • Jonathan Martin on the disappearing bipartisan tradition of the National Governors Association. (Politico)
  • And finally, speaking of AI, David Brooks’ thoughtful meditation on whether humans will soon be eclipsed. (New York Times)

What to watch today

All times Eastern.

Photo by Mojahid Mottakin / Unsplash

At the White House: President Biden will deliver remarks at 1:30 p.m. to announce a voluntary agreement reached between the federal government and seven AI companies: Google, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon, OpenAI, Anthropic, and Inflection. Under the agreement, the companies pledged to create a watermark system to help users identify AI-generated content, among other commitments on transparency, safety, and testing.

Before I go...

“Barbenheimer” is here. Today is the long-awaited release date of both the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movies. As viewers flock to both films, this weekend could be the highest-grossing for movie theaters since the pandemic.

Several members of Congress have joined in on the social media craze over the movies, sharing which movie they plan to see — or, in classic politician fashion, declining to pick between them. Take a look:

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— Gabe