Texas House delegation split over Love Field rule

Less than two weeks after legislation was proposed to repeal the 1979 Wright Amendment, House Republican members of the Texas delegation have begun to line up on opposite sides of the issue while most delegation Democrats are still weighing their stances on the contentious state airport matter.

Texas Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Sam JohnsonSam JohnsonOvernight Finance: House votes to rein in IRS; Ryan won't set Puerto Rico timeline House GOP grills IRS head on illegal immigrants' tax returns House GOP chairman narrowly survives primary challenge MORE introduced legislation May 26 to repeal the amendment, which put restrictions on Dallas Love Field to protect then-newly opened Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in 1979.

file photo
Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling.

The amendment restricts flights out of Love Field to Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Another amendment passed later added service to Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi. Southwest Airlines, based at Love Field, contends that the amendment is obsolete and serves only to benefit American Airlines, which currently occupies much of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

Southwest has turned down an offer from DFW of free rent for a year at the airport and more than $22 million in incentives. American Airlines defends the Wright Amendment, arguing that its repeal would cause economic damage to the North Texas economy.

 “It was important to initiate a debate and research on it. Congressman Hensarling supports the immediate repeal [of the Wright Amendment] even though there is a variety of different opinions about it,” said Mike Walz, a spokesman for Hensarling. “The next weeks we hope to get additional co-sponsors. This is not an issue about an airline or an airport but about what is better for consumers. There is no doubt there are differing views right now and the delegation is divided.”

He added, “Hopefully over the next months we will find a solution. Maybe not in this Congress, but eventually the consumers will demand what’s better for them.” 

Texas GOP Reps. Ron Paul and John Culberson joined the co-sponsor list, along with Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Joe WilsonJoe WilsonOvernight Cybersecurity: Fight over feds' hacking powers moves to Congress New House caucus will help keep hackers out of cars Defense authorization bill would elevate Cyber Command MORE (R-S.C.), Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) and Butch Otter (R-Idaho), according to a Johnson spokesperson.

“The congressman would definitely like to see the Wright Amendment repealed,” said Jeff Deist, a spokesman for Paul. “It is a blatantly protectionist measure.”

But not all Texans support repealing the amendment. Four North Texas members of the delegation have voiced strong opposition to repealing the amendment and have vowed to defeat the Hensarling-Johnson legislation.

At a press conference May 26, Republican Reps. Kay GrangerKay GrangerA case for the Yarmuth-Price resolution Congress reaches milestone on countering anti-Semitism Hoyer blasts GOP plan to use Ebola cash in Zika fight MORE, Michael BurgessMichael BurgessThe Hill's 12:30 Report GOP group promises ObamaCare replacement plan — soon No need to boost war budget MORE, Joe Barton and Kenny Marchant cited economic concerns and airfare costs as a reason to keep Love under its current restrictions.

“It’s a local-economy issue,” Granger said in a statement. “There’s an answer to this, and it isn’t repealing the Wright Amendment.”

Gina Vaughn, a spokeswoman for Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), said, “Congressman Sessions is not supportive of an immediate repeal of the Wright Amendment. At the same time, he does not believe that keeping the Wright Amendment in perpetuity is the correct solution on this issue.”

Vaughn said Sessions was concerned that an immediate repeal would have a negative effect on the regional economy because “business plans that affect the regional economy have been built around the existence of the Wright Amendment for more than 30 years now.”

Love Field is located in Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-Texas) congressional district. While she has not yet taken a position on the issue, as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — where the legislation has been referred — she plans to watch the debate closely.

“Her primary concern rests squarely on the issue of job preservation, safety and air traffic control. Until she is presented with a clear and unbiased view of what repealing or maintaining the status quo will do, she is unlikely to take a firm position at this time,” said Lisa Hanna, a Johnson spokeswoman.

Other members are also hedging their bets on Love Field and waiting to see how the debate plays out.

Josh Noland, a spokesman for Rep. Randy NeugebauerRandy NeugebauerRetailers battle financial sector over data breach legislation Bipartisan effort seeks end to budget gimmicks Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate encryption bill nears finish line MORE (R-Texas), said, “He understands why it was passed in the early ’80s.”

Noland added that while Neugebauer is not taking a strong position on the bill, the congressman believes it is “a good idea to review laws every now and then” to make sure they are still relevant.

Texas Reps. Michael Conway (R), Chet Edwards (D), Solomon Ortiz (D), John Carter (R), Lamar Smith (R), Kevin BradyKevin BradyInversion rule: latest example of government overreach ‘It’s a King Kong vs. Godzilla kind of race’ Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico defaults on 2M MORE (R), Ted PoeTed PoeThe Hill's 12:30 Report Overnight Healthcare: Justices split on ObamaCare contraception case Conservative backlash against tort reform bill surprised GOP sponsor MORE (R) and Michael McCaul (R) are also undecided on the issue. Some other members of the delegation could not be reached for comment.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) urged caution in making any sudden changes to the Wright Amendment.

“Senator Hutchison will only support changes to the Wright Amendment once a comprehensive impact study proves that the regional airport and communities won’t suffer economically,” Chris Paulitz, press secretary for Hutchison, said in an e-mail. “The amendment should remain in place until we know it’s no longer necessary to protect Metroplex taxpayers.”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP urged to confirm Supreme Court nominee after Trump win Judiciary Dems seek hearing on voting rights First US Zika death reported in Puerto Rico MORE (R-Texas), said, “Both sides in this dispute have made a strong case for their position; both have merit. Any resolution to this issue must benefit the people of Texas without unduly disrupting the numerous commitments made as a result of the existing law.”

Currently, there is no companion legislation in the Senate. According to reports, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is working on legislation to repeal the amendment; a spokesman said he is still researching the issue.

Djamila Grossman contributed to this report.