A view of the United taxiway at Denver International Airport. | courtesy of Denver International Airport
Republicans on a U.S. Senate panel raised several objections Wednesday to President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, while Democrats indicated their support and called the objections “fake scandals” meant only to create a political controversy.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s confirmation hearing for Phil Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, came more than seven months after Biden first nominated him and nearly a year since former Administrator Steve Dickson left office.
Senators of both parties said the agency needs a Senate-confirmed leader, amid a series of recent problems in the nation’s aviation system. But committee members split largely along party lines about whether Washington was the right person for the job.
A group of Republicans, led by ranking member Ted Cruz of Texas, attacked Washington on myriad issues. They criticized his relatively light experience in aviation, his stated commitment to diversity and inclusion and an ongoing criminal probe into Los Angeles politicians that coincided with his time leading that county’s transit agency.
Cruz also noted the FAA is required by law to have a civilian administrator and contended Washington, who retired from active duty in the U.S. Army in 2000, would need a congressional waiver in addition to a confirmation vote. Congress has routinely approved such waivers for other nominees.
“We would do the same for Mr. Washington if his record merited it,” Cruz said. “But it doesn’t, given his virtually nonexistent aviation experience, poor management record and legal controversies.”
While a confirmation vote would require only a simple majority in the Senate, a waiver would need support from 60 senators and a majority of the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
There is a dispute, however, over if Washington, who is not an active-duty service member, would actually require a waiver.
Washington’s home-state senator, Democrat John Hickenlooper, said in a written statement Wednesday that Washington is eligible without a waiver.
“A nominee to be Secretary of Defense only needs seven years of separation from the military to be considered a civilian, and even then only if they were commissioned officers,” Hickenlooper said. “Phil Washington has been retired for three times as long and was never an officer. He’s a civilian.”
Washington addressed each issue Republicans raised over the course of a three-hour hearing, and several Democrats endorsed his character and qualifications.
Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz called Republicans’ objections “a hatchet job” and “a smear campaign,” saying they were “trying desperately to turn every aspect of his career into a scandal.”
“Mr. Washington is a skilled and dedicated public administrator with an extensive record showing that he knows transportation,” he said. “Ignoring this to punish him over fake scandals is absurd. Mr. Washington is exactly the kind of person that we should want in public service.”
Though it gave Republicans an opportunity to rail against him, the hearing was a sign of progress for Washington’s confirmation, which has not advanced since July.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has advocated for Washington and praised the committee Wednesday for holding the hearing.
“The FAA needs to have a leader as soon as possible,” he said, adding that he would speak to the nomination more “in the coming weeks.”
The committee hasn’t yet scheduled a vote to send Washington’s nomination to the Senate floor, where he’ll need a simple majority of senators to be confirmed.
Aviation experience a hurdle
Washington has been the top executive at Denver’s airport since July 2021. He took that position after two decades in public transit management, including six-year stints leading transit agencies in Los Angeles County and Denver.
Before that, he served in the U.S. Army for 24 years, retiring as a command sergeant major.
Cruz and other Republicans said the two years at Denver International Airport was insufficient experience in an aviation-related position for the federal government’s top aviation position.
Voicing concerns about Washington’s aviation experience, Cruz and U.S. Sen. Ted Budd, a North Carolina Republican, quizzed Washington on airplane operations and FAA safety regulations.
Washington answered most of Cruz’s questions, but was unable to answer many of Budd’s that related to specific FAA rules.
“The FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on the job training,” Budd said. “And for that reason, I’m going to be opposing your nomination.”
Experience was the only area where any Democrat indicated any unease with the nomination. Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada, said she had “concerns” about Washington’s qualifications, but didn’t elaborate.
While not a licensed pilot or an experienced aviation official, Washington said, the leadership skills required to run large public transit agencies would translate directly to leading the FAA.
As the FAA spends grant money from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law that allows for airport upgrades, Washington’s experience overseeing large construction projects in previous roles would be particularly relevant, he said.
Diversity and safety standards
Washington, who could become the first Senate-confirmed Black person to lead the FAA, said diversity and inclusion initiatives are important, but could be pursued without sacrificing safety, which would remain the agency’s top priority.
An FAA official devoted to equity would be necessary, he said, adding that he would hire one as a senior staff member.
Several Republicans, including Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Eric Schmitt of Missouri, said Washington was overly focused on racial equity.
Vance said he would support some changes in the industry to boost pilots and federal administrators of color, but that safety standards must not be relaxed.
“There is an inconsistency between some of the diversity, equity and inclusion rhetoric on the one hand and the fact that we should hold everybody to equal standards no matter what,” Vance said.
Washington told Vance he believed pilots and safety officials of all races would be held to the same standards.
Schmitt said Missourians didn’t want “social cultural merits” to enter into aviation decision-making.
“Your track record seems to indicate that you’re … in line with this prioritization of diversity, equity, inclusion, climate change over safety and that is very concerning to me,” he added.
Washington repeated that if confirmed, safety would remain the agency’s top priority.
Cruz also invoked a pending criminal corruption case in Los Angeles County related to a Metro contract given to a politically connected nonprofit.
Washington was named in the search warrant served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. Former County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl appears to be the target of the investigation, but authorities also sought communications with Washington. The state attorney general’s investigation remains ongoing, Cruz said.
A line in the warrant accused Washington of advancing the contract as a favor to Kuehl, Cruz said.
Washington denied any wrongdoing in the case. The contract at issue was initiated before he took office, he said. He never talked to Kuehl about the matter, which was handled by L.A. Metro department heads — not by Washington personally, he said.
“I never talked with anyone about that, that contract,” he said. “The allegations are false.”
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