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In the halls of Congress, Rural America has always been fighting for its life – fighting to ensure that Dallas, South Dakota is able to compete with Dallas, Texas for its fair share of federal taxpayer dollars. This fight is waged across all sectors of industry, from small, rural hospitals vs. large urban medical centers to family farmers vs. international agribusiness interests; and here we go again with predominately urban bus systems vs. small air carriers and airports serving rural communities.
Many of those launching the most recent attack against the Essential Air Service (EAS) program will say this characterization of rural vs. urban misses the mark entirely; that they are simply sick and tired of paying the bill for yet another “temporary” federal program that doles out millions of dollars with very little tangible benefit to them. Point noted. The rural air service community has long advocated for reforming the EAS program to ensure communities truly build a path toward self-sufficiency when possible, and short of that find creative solutions to bring down per-passenger subsidies and make the program as efficient as possible. Such common sense reforms must be part of the next FAA reauthorization bill.
But a program that provides a legitimate economic lifeline to so many communities — and one that is funded entirely from internal user fees rather than general tax revenue — should not be blindly eliminated or defunded to the point of being effectively useless. At the end of the day, these small rural airports and the commercial air service they offer provider a tangible economic driver for their rural communities, something subsidized bus service can not provide. Furthermore, we must be willing to shine the same bright light on the BILLION DOLLAR programs serving urban interests year after year without any real oversight or inspection for those three dirty words of waste, fraud and abuse. Those criticizing EAS without also demanding the same accountability for programs serving urban interests are proving our point – this is an urban vs. rural thing.
But Rural America is accustomed to this double standard. They don’t have as many lobbyists, grant writers, economic developers, teachers, fire fighters and police officers. Rural America has always done more with less. This pioneering spirit is invoked with great patriotism and nostalgia when convenient to bolster our better nature in times of trouble; but the truth is that rural communities need a level playing field if they are to survive and fairly influence our national discourse on key issues and challenges. The Founders realized this, and the result is our bicameral legislature and the Electoral College.
By its very Constitutional nature of allocating seats based on population, the House of Representatives is dominated by Members from urban/suburban districts. To the contrary, in the U.S. Senate Wyoming and Montana enjoy every bit of influence as that of New York and California. This arrangement ensures that urban population centers do not dominate our public discourse and the resultant public policy. Similarly, our electoral system of electing a President ensures that New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia do not appoint our Commander In Chief absent the views of Smalltown, USA (just ask Mr. Gore).
And thus, we have come full circle to the ultimate paradox for conservatives: providing a megaphone for Rural America is a great thing in Presidential elections, but not so good in federal budget crafting. Yes, we must ensure that every federal program passes the laugh test for practicality and efficiency – even ones like EAS that derive their funding from internal user fees rather than general taxpayer revenue. But we must also always ask ourselves the question of what greater waste we may create by using a budgetary chainsaw rather than even just a meat clever? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the great irony that in using the $200 million EAS program as a pawn in the recent shutdown of FAA operations, the federal government lost $350 million in air ticket receipts. At what point are we cutting off our nose to spite our face?