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Wag The Dog

April 21, 2015

Usually when we talk about ‘too close for comfort’ we’re talking about economy-class. 
Rep. Bill Shuster, Chair of the Transportation Committee and Shelley Rubino, VP for Global Government “Affairs” disclosed their relationship last week.
This time it’s about lobbyists and politicans.
Last week, Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chief  anti-passenger legislator – whose main campaign contributors are United and American Airlines – revealed that he’s been in a ‘personal relationship’ with a top lobbyist for the airline industry for the  past year. 
Not until investigated by the media did Mr. Shuster disclose this relationship with the airline lobbyist.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Do you see the conflict of interest here? We do. 
Politico broke the story last Thursday about this influential lawmaker’s dalliance with the VP for Global Government Affairs for Airlines for America (referred to as A4A), Shelley Rubino.
Why should you care? Simple, because passenger rights legislation appears to have been tainted by this liaison with a lobbyist that spends millions trying to manipulate his committee. 
The Traveling Public Always Loses In These Situations
“When there’s politically incestuous relationships between a regulated industry and the leadership that oversees it, I don’t see how any legislation could come out that would not be tainted in some way,” said Paul Hudson, president of and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

He said Mr. Shuster has shown partiality to the industry at the expense of consumers, and that he wields so much power that other committee members seem afraid to oppose him.
Mr. Shuster, he said, is allowing the industry broad latitude in writing FAA legislation, while he has ignored input from others, including Mr. Hudson’s organization, which proposed 30 reforms.

 “So far we have seen no hearings on any passenger-rights legislation. We’ve been told by some committee members they wouldn’t even introduce anything because it might displease the chairman,” Mr. Hudson said.
Pay To Play

1. Close personal ties between Shuster and A4A coincide with their nearly identical policy views and goals:       
As of the end of 2014, A4A was lobbying on the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014. Shuster personally introduced this legislation that would hide the true cost of airfares. 
This is not the first time Shuster’s personal life has been found to have issues pointing towards involvement with other female lobbyists. 
He was one of a half-dozen Republican congressmen who were scolded by House Minority Leader John Boehner in 2010 to keep their distance from the lady lobbyists who prowl Capitol Hill.
Shuster got divorced last year after more than 27 years of marriage.
2. The House Transportation Committee: the new ‘Mile-High Club’?
The connections between Shuster’s office and committee with A4A appear to run very deep.
Rubino is listed by the trade association as one of its lobbyists in disclosure forms filed with Congress. The association paid her nearly $460,000 in salary and benefits in 2013, according to tax records.
Shuster recently hired Chris Brown, A4A’s vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, to be staff director on the subcommittee that writes FAA bills. 
Shuster’s personal office chief of staff, Eric Burgeson, is married to Christine Burgeson, senior vice president of government relations at A4A. Shuster is reputed to be close personal friends with Nick Calio, A4A president and CEO.
Shuster also has expressed support for the US airline industry’s stance against the Persian Gulf air carriers in the current ‘Open Skies‘ argument. 
Shuster has also spoken out against new taxes on the airline industry. FlyersRights has urged taxing the billions of dollars airlines earn from baggage and other fees. 
3.  A4A and the airlines have contributed significantly to Shuster

A4A and its employees “contributed more than $20,000” to Shuster (making him the only congressman A4A made the maximum contribution to).  The airlines and other companies comprising A4A’s membership have together “given hundreds of thousands more to Shuster throughout his career.” In total, A4A spent $6.8 million on lobbying efforts in 2014.

4.  Like Father, Like Son: Shuster’s father resigned over similar issues
Bud Shuster, Bill’s father, was also a former chairman of the Transportation Committee. Following an investigation, the Ethics Committee found Bud Shuster engaged in a “pattern and practice” of allowing his former top aide Ann Eppard – a transportation lobbyist – to appear before him on behalf of her clients after she left his staff. 
There is a one-year ban on ex-employees lobbying the members or committees they worked for. Bud allegedly accepted gifts from and gave preferential access to Eppard. 
Following the Ethics Committee investigation, Bud resigned from Congress in 2001 but denied any wrongdoing. Bill won his father’s seat after his resignation.
Tossing Aside The “Appearance of Impropriety”
A philosophical conundrum: Is mutual impropriety, impropriety at all? Apparently not under the House ethics rules drafted by Congress. 
The conflict-of-interest rules don’t prohibit family members, including spouses, from lobbying lawmakers, although members are barred from taking action on an issue in which they have a direct financial stake. Other romantic relationships aren’t addressed in the House Ethics Manual.
On a related issue, Congress averaged 14% approval last year.

The question becomes, what help or advice did Rubino get from Shuster? We hope the House GOP will clear this up by releasing their emails which they have refused to let the public see.

This is one of the most deplorable examples of congressional arrogance and conflicts of interest. Out of respect for ‘We the People’, Mr. Shuster should recuse himself and resign his post. 
Passengers’ safety ‘at risk’ by shrinking seats 
FlyersRights has been saying this for years, and finally the mainstream media are reporting that tighter seat space is unhealthy and unsafe for travelers.
The Department of Transportation dove into those issues at the public hearing as part of its role to make non-binding suggestions to government regulators.
Listen to “ARE SMALL AIRPLANE SEATS DANGEROUS?”, KOMO radio interview with Charlie Leocha, publisher of Consumer Traveler.
“Passenger Choice”

The airlines like to convey that sardine conditions are a “passenger’s choice”.

They say they are offering “choice” to the economy customers who care more about price than being able to sit comfortably in the seat. 

But the truth is that squeezing more and more passengers into limited space, while shrinking lavatories, is for the sake of cost-controls and carrier profits.

And yes, it’s likely the CEO of American, United or Delta have ever flown in the middle seat in coach.

In February, FlyersRights held a media advisory on petitions to reduce airfares and end airline exemptions from consumer protection & antitrust laws.  
Our Passenger Bill of  Rights 2.0 calls for the FAA to set standards guaranteeing each passenger adequate leg, hip, and shoulder room. FAA currently has no standards limiting how small seats can be or how tightly they may be placed.
Passengers are not powerless to stop the trend to smaller seats and overcrowded airplanes. You can insist the FAA act now to set standards, and you can have a say in what those standards will be. 
It was passenger pressure that forced the DOT to set reasonable rules on tarmac delays.
Show your support for seat standards by contacting your representatives, and joining FlyersRights

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