CHART: One reason why Congress eased sequestration for air travelers

WASHINGTON – “Glacial” tends to be the adjective used about the pace at which Congress works. Not this week. Faced with several days of negative stories about flight delays brought on by the automatic spending cuts both political parties agreed to in 2011, Congress raced to reduce waiting times for airline passengers (and truth be told, members of Congress themselves) before going on a week-long break.

Three members of Minnesota’s delegation, U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz, were among 41 no votes on the bill. The measure passed with 361 aye votes, including the votes of the state’s other five House members. U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken supported the Senate version of the bill.

Identical bills passed by the Senate on Thursday and the House on Friday shift some money from an account used for airport improvements to pay for fully-staffing air traffic control centers through the end of this fiscal year. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law.

While many media reports focused on angry passengers and flight crews, the airline industry is also a significant donor to members of Congress and had been lobbying furiously to avoid flight delays. Until it was merged with Delta in 2010, Northwest Airlines was based in Eagan and Delta continues to operate a hub from MSP.

An MPR News review of contributions by airlines, their employees, airports and the air freight industry shows more than $283,000 in donations from those sources to Minnesota’s members of Congress between 2009 and 2012. The two biggest recipients of the industry’s largesse are no longer in Congress, former U.S. Reps. Jim Oberstar and Chip Cravaack. Oberstar, a Democrat, chaired the House Transportation Committee which has jurisdiction over the airline industry. Cravaack, a Republican and former airline pilot, defeated Oberstar in 2010 only to fall to Democrat Rick Nolan two years later.

DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who received $39,000 in industry contributions, helped broker the bipartisan agreement to shift money from other parts of the FAA’s budget to air traffic controllers.

While the traveling public may now experience less inconvenience due to the swift congressional action the impact of the across the board budget cuts, known as sequestration, continue to affect scores of lower-profile federal programs. Federal rent subsidies for poor families in the Twin Cities will be reduced by at least 5 percent, leading to as many as 500 families not receiving housing assistance.

UPDATE: This post was updated to include the vote totals in the U.S. House.