Editorials Off-center February 14, 2011 Share 1 -- Sometimes it doesn't pay to hang on an elected politician's every word. They misspeak, they exaggerate; sometimes they use the wrong word. We get that. Still, we were a little taken aback recently to hear Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) state that a tarmac-delay rule and a passenger "bill of rights" are the "centerpiece" of the latest incarnation of the FAA reauthorization bill. Silly us -- we thought the centerpiece on this table was the FAA and the need to modernize its air traffic control system so that commercial aircraft could use the same kind of GPS technology now found in Honda Civics. Not to minimize the importance of a rule limiting tarmac delays to three hours, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has already done that, without a mandate from Congress. We had hoped that this would enable Rockefeller and his colleagues to focus their attention on things that the Transportation Department can't do on its own, such as legislating a new funding plan that would pay for next-generation air traffic control. Congress has been trying to rewrite the FAA authorization for four years, but the legislation keeps stalling. We think that's because the legislation keeps attracting amendments, provisos and earmarks that clutter up the table and obscure the real centerpiece. Last year, for example, the bill attracted a provision pertaining to antitrust immunity for airline alliances. This year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants to use it as a vehicle to phase out the DOT's 32-year-old Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes service to small communities. According to the Capitol Hill journal Politico, the bill is also full of "aviation pet projects," despite a purported ban on earmarks. There is no reason for these pet projects to become bargaining chips in the serious work that needs to be done regarding the air travel infrastructure, and the same goes for other endlessly debated issues such as antitrust immunity for airline alliances, customer service standards for passengers and subsidies for small-town air service. Next-gen air traffic control has been held hostage to these and other issues for too long. Let's put the centerpiece back in the center of the table.