Boeing Crashes Highlight the High Costs of Cheap Government

They got what we paid for.
Photo: Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images

In 2005, the Federal Aviation Authority gave airplane manufacturers the power to cast their own employees as in-house regulators. This policy streamlined the inefficient “revolving door” process by making it possible for Boeing to regulate itself without the hassle of getting its lobbyists appointed to the F.A.A. The George W. Bush-administration argued that such “delegation” would allow the agency to concentrate its scarce resources on the most important safety issues, while also helping America’s aviation giants get new planes to market faster.

The F.A.A.’s rank and file saw things differently. As the New York Times reports:

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, whose members include F.A.A. certification employees, said at the time that the F.A.A.’s new approach “provides less specific and technical F.A.A. oversight and therefore would in time lower the safety of the flying public.”

Another F.A.A. union now known as the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists said it would oppose “any system that allows industry to self-regulate oversight via the honor system.” The union wrote that the F.A.A.’s “blatant outsourcing” was “reckless” and would “actually compromise public air safety, not enhance it.”

The F.A.A. was “rushing to hand off their oversight responsibilities to industry and virtually establishing a ‘fox guarding the henhouse’ mentality,” the union wrote.

Nevertheless, delegation persisted. And for a simple reason: The F.A.A. could not afford to directly oversee all aircraft certification without either slowing aviation production to a crawl, or securing much higher funding from Congress. The cost of bringing all aviation certifications under the F.A.A.’s roof last year would have meant a $1.8 billion increase to the agency’s budget, the F.A.A.’s acting director told the Senate this week.

The cost of not doing so, meanwhile, might have been 346 human lives.

Within the past five months, two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes have crashed, killing all who were aboard them. Investigators now believe that the 737 MAX’s flawed flight-control system — known as MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) — caused these tragedies. And reporting from the Seattle Times suggests that — if the flight control system is responsible — then the F.A.A.’s delegation policy is, too:

As Boeing hustled in 2015 to catch up to Airbus and certify its new 737 MAX, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.

But the original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the MAX — a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly — had several crucial flaws.

… [B]lack box data retrieved after the Lion Air crash indicates that a single faulty sensor — a vane on the outside of the fuselage that measures the plane’s “angle of attack,” the angle between the airflow and the wing — triggered MCAS multiple times during the deadly flight, initiating a tug of war as the system repeatedly pushed the nose of the plane down and the pilots wrestled with the controls to pull it back up, before the final crash.

It is true that the F.A.A.’s current delegation rules have been around for more than a decade — and that America’s commercial airlines have assembled an enviable safety record over that period. But the available evidence also suggests that America’s refusal to adequately fund the F.A.A. allowed corporations to gain inordinate influence over a public-sector function — and many people died as a result.

In this respect, the Boeing 737 Max fiasco is indicative of a broader pathology in American civic life. In the U.S., we don’t just underfund our regulatory agencies (thereby forcing them to outsource many of their core functions, and making it impossible for them to compete with the private sector for top talent), but scrimp on virtually every level of government.

The stinginess might be most egregious at the state level. In Nebraska, state legislators earn just $12,000; in North Carolina’s statehouse, lawmakers are provided no staff while the legislature is in session. Many progressives attribute regressive policy outcomes to the abundance of corporate money in political campaigns, but the dearth of public money in governance is similarly corrosive. As the political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez documents in his new book State Capture, The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a right-wing organization that drafts model legislation to fit the specifications of its corporate benefactors, and then provides ready-made bills to state lawmakers across the country — owes much of its success (if not, it’s entire existence) to the lack of public resources at state legislature’s disposal.

And our federal legislature suffers from a similar pathology. As Betsy Wright Hawkins explained for The Hill in 2018:

When House and Senate appropriations deliberations began this year, funding levels for the Legislative Branch had been stagnant for a decade. Numbers of experienced policy staff in personal and committee offices were hollowed out, and the salaries of those who remain eroded. The resulting staff attrition means Congress employs roughly three-quarters of the people it did in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the average House member represents approximately 200,000 more constituents, and each senator an estimated 1.6 million more constituents than they did 30 years ago …

… As a chief of staff in the House of Representatives for more than 25 years, I saw firsthand the personal toll funding shortfalls took on the dedicated, civic-minded men and women who are the lifeblood of the institution. Personal office budgets were cut by more than 20 percent during the last 10 years I served there. In the mid-2000s, I could budget to pay a highly-qualified legislative assistant $60,000 — no pittance, but an amount stretched by Washington’s high cost of living. By the end of my service in the House in 2015, I could afford to pay a similarly qualified staffer about $40,000.

As Congress has cut spending on legislative aid, the private sector has filled in the gap. Today, corporations spend more than $2.6 billion a year on congressional lobbyists — more than American taxpayers spend on all of Congress. If our elected representatives didn’t let special interests write legislative copy for them, it’s not clear that they would be able to do their jobs.

This is not an accident. The conservative movement understands that the fewer resources legislatures and bureaucracies receive from the public, the more they will accept from private interests — who will then see considerable returns on their investment in state capture. For decades, Congress had its own think-tank, which provided it with publicly funded, nonpartisan policy research. But the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) often produced findings that undermined the Republican Party’s ideological goals — and so, in the name of fiscal responsibility, Newt Gingrich killed it.

The consequences of America’s underinvestment in its governing institutions aren’t always as conspicuous or horrifying as a plane crash. But in its collective effects, our nation’s addiction to cheap government has a body count that few spectacular accidents could rival.

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