President Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t need a waiver from Congress to be confirmed, the Biden administration told lawmakers Thursday.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, has insisted that FAA nominee Phil Washington must secure a waiver due to his retired military status, citing federal law that says the FAA administrator must be a civilian. Republicans would likely vote down the waiver, dooming his nomination.
In a letter to Cruz obtained by The Hill, Department of Transportation general counsel John Putnam said that Washington has “engaged in solely civilian pursuits and clearly fits the plain and widely understood meaning of the word” since retiring from the U.S. Army in 2000 after 24 years of service.
“No further analysis is required to confirm Mr. Washington’s eligibility,” Putnam wrote. “If Congress had wanted to impose additional restrictions on individuals with prior service in the military, it could have done so.”
Cruz has stressed that previous FAA nominees with retired military status — those who served for 20 or more years — had to secure a waiver from both the House and Senate.
But Putnam wrote Thursday that those waivers “were not necessary to make the nominees eligible to serve as FAA Administrator.”
The letter will likely enrage Republicans, who argued that Washington — who took over as CEO of Denver International Airport in 2021 — doesn’t have enough aviation experience to lead the FAA. They also point to an ongoing corruption probe into no-bid contracts that Washington handed out as head of the Los Angeles Metro.
“If Senate Democrats force this nomination through without a waiver, a legal cloud will hang over every single FAA action,” Cruz said at Washington’s nomination hearing earlier this month.
“Congress and the President have strictly, repeatedly, and on a bipartisan basis interpreted the law, since it was written, as excluding retired military members like Phil Washington,” Republican Senate Commerce Committee spokesperson Melissa Braid said in a statement.
Without a waiver, Washington would only need to get 50 votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 51-49 majority.
The spat comes as the FAA nears the one-year mark of operating without a Senate-confirmed administrator. In recent months, the FAA suffered an unprecedented system meltdown that grounded all U.S. flights and oversaw several near-crashes at large airports.
Republicans have said the issues show the need for a qualified administrator, while Democrats say the FAA needs leadership as soon as possible.
“Mr. Washington’s experience not only meets, but exceeds the qualifications of the position when viewed historically,” Putnam told Cruz in his letter.
Biden nominated Washington in July 2022, but his nomination stalled amid concerns from senators. He has slowly picked up support in recent weeks, receiving endorsements from three former FAA administrators, a top airport service workers’ union and Frontier Airlines.