The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is scheduled to vote on President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday morning – marking a consequential moment for the embattled nominee and the agency, which is attempting to address a slew of major challenges.
Phil Washington, whose nomination was first announced by Biden some eight months ago, has faced continued resistance from Republican lawmakers over issues that have emerged since he was nominated last summer, pressing him over a number of matters, including his slim aviation-related credentials.
Ahead of Wednesday’s committee vote, a steady stream of groups lined up for and against Washington.
Aviation worker unions, former transportation secretaries on both sides of the aisle, Denver-based Frontier Airlines and the family members of crash victims who died on Ethiopian Air Flight 302 have all endorsed Washington in the lead up to Wednesday’s vote.
Former Department of Transportation officials who served at the agency during the Trump administration signed onto a letter to the president expressing their opposition to Washington’s confirmation.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, and Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, have both expressed their opposition to Washington’s nomination.
The FAA has been operating without a permanent administrator for a year.
In that time, the agency has contended with several problems that have plagued travelers and the airline industry, such as recent near-collisions involving airliners, crucial staffing shortages and malfunctions of aging technology that have caused major air travel disruption.
While Democrats largely seemed supportive during Washington’s confirmation hearing earlier this month, he was grilled by Republican senators on issues that have emerged since he was named as a prospective administrator last summer.
Washington, the current CEO of the Denver International Airport, has held leadership roles at municipal transit organizations, including in Denver and Los Angeles, focused on bus and rail lines. He also led the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation. Prior to his work in transportation, Washington served in the military for 24 years.
While Washington has worked in transportation-related positions since 2000, he had no experience in the aviation industry prior to joining the Denver airport in 2021 – a major concern among committee members.
Since being nominated, Washington had also faced questions about being named in a search warrant issued as part of a political corruption investigation in Los Angeles, along with other potential legal entanglements. Republicans have also questioned whether Washington, an Army veteran who left the military in 2000 after more than 20 years of service, would be statutorily considered a civilian – a requirement in order to serve as the FAA chief.
If he’s not considered a civilian, he would need a waiver from Congress allowing him to lead the agency. And Republicans in both the House and the Senate do not support granting Washington a waiver.