Congress May Use Leverage in Wright Battle

Feb. 21, 2006
Congress could motivate local officials to create an authority to run the airports -- and to sort out issues over long-haul flights from Love -- by holding back federal funds.

Feb. 17--WASHINGTON -- Congress may lack the constitutional power to create a regional airport authority that would oversee the operations of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

But the report said Congress could motivate local officials to create an authority to run the airports -- and to sort out issues over long-haul flights from Love -- by holding back federal funds.

"It appears possible to draft legislation conditioning the receipt of the federal appropriated funds to either the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, or to the airports directly upon the creation of a regional airport authority under guidelines established by Congress," the report said.

The report by the nonpartisan research arm of Congress offered an analytical and legal insight into the controversy over the 1979 Wright amendment.

Finding a local solution to the issue has taken on a sense of urgency since last fall.

That's when Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., added Missouri to the list of states where flights are permissible from Love Field. Lawmakers have warned local officials they must come up with a compromise soon or Congress could impose an odious solution on North Texas.

"If they don't, the Senate is going to start chipping away at it one state at a time like they did last year," said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano. "They are running scared because they think something could get through the Congress."

The report was prepared at the request of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has urged local government and business leaders to craft a compromise on Wright. Love Field is in Ms. Johnson's district.

Ms. Johnson asked for the research service report after it was reported last week that Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief had privately discussed the idea of creating a regional airport authority.

"I believe that a rational consensus can be reached as long as people are talking," said Ms. Johnson, who released the six-page report to The Dallas Morning News.

Even so, North Texas officials are a long way from finding a common solution.

Dallas city officials are tongue-tied over what they can legally say about the issue. Southwest Airlines Co. continues to back full repeal. And American Airlines Inc. argues the Wright law was the compromise.

Delegation acting

Key members of the Texas congressional delegation are working on a legislative proposal to facilitate the creation of a regional airport authority. Members said the effort is largely being spearheaded by Republican Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and Michael Burgess of Flower Mound.

"There is a lot of discussion that is going on between the members to try and find a consensus," Mr. Sessions said. Dr. Burgess declined to comment.

Eventually, the members will have to get the blessing of other North Texas lawmakers -- some of whom hold strong views on opposite sides of the issue.

Among those are Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, and Mr. Johnson, who are the co-sponsors of a bill to repeal Wright. They are opposed by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, who backs American's position.

But flexibility appears to be emerging from each side.

"There are a lot of different ideas and processes that could be done. I really have an open mind," said Mr. Hensarling, adding that his ultimate goal still is to repeal the Wright amendment.

Mr. Hensarling and Mr. Johnson are not pulling back on efforts to push their repeal legislation, which now has 45 cosponsors. "I think we will leave it in place and see what happens," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Barton said he has discussed the idea of a regional airport authority with both mayors and is not endorsing the idea -- but isn't opposing it either.

"I am not enthusiastic about the idea," he said, adding that he is "not opposed to locally elected officials seeing if they can come up with a concept that is agreeable to all the impacted communities."


Ms. Johnson said the research service report backs up her contention that local officials in North Texas must come up with a plan for sorting out the controversy over the Wright amendment. She pointed to the creation of Dallas Area Rapid Transit as an example of how local communities can reach consensus on regional transportation issues.

"A regional authority has to be decided on by the regional people," Ms. Johnson said.

The report said an attempt by Congress to create a regional authority may violate the 10th Amendment, which seeks to limit the federal government's authority on local issues.

"While Congress' power to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce is broad, it is not unlimited and, in recent years, has been constrained by the [Supreme] Court's interpretation of the 10th Amendment," the report said.

"Applying these cases to a proposal for a congressionally mandated regional airport authority, it appears possible to argue that a proposal of this type improperly intrudes into state sovereignty by conscripting or commandeering the governments of Dallas and Fort Worth to carry out a federal mandate."

But the research service said the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of Congress to tie conditions to the receipt of the federal funds. It noted a 1987 decision upholding the right of Congress to tie federal highway funds to South Dakota's adopting a drinking age of 21.

In this case, Congress might take a less heavy-handed approach if local officials reach an agreement to set up a regional board. Lawmakers might appropriate federal funds to cover the cost, tying the money to its actual creation.

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