Here we go again. The airlines, no surprise, oppose a tiny raid on the goverment's airport and airways trust fund. They even oppose using interest payments from the multibillion-dollar account to fund the U.S National Tourism Organization.

Of course, there is no aviation trust fund bulging with money, any more than there is a highways or a Social Security trust fund accumulating dollars. The fund is an accounting ruse. The money collected goes into the general budget to mask the federal deficit.

But, no matter. The proposal floated by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) would set aside that portion of the revenue collected for airports and put the amount into an interest-bearing account to finance the tourism organization.

As for the airlines: No way do they want Congress to set a precedent and violate the fund, which was designed to maintain and improve the aviation infrastructure. Nor does Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

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One can't blame the airlines, although, as USNTO chairman Roger Ballou observed, the idea would have the appeal of funding the public/private-sector partnership without an annual appropriation. Automatic funding must be everyone's dream.

Presumably the airlines would benefit from overseas promotion. But if Congress thinks that all tourism promotion to the U.S. is a favor to the airlines, which spend millions promoting the country now, they ought to stop deluding themselves.

We still think that promoting the U.S., even skimpily, is a good thing for the country, generating revenues that make their way to jobs and businesses and lowering taxes. Probably the only way to demonstrate the impact to Congress is to issue foreign visitors tourist dollars that could be redeemed at a local bank.

The USNTO, which always has faced tough sledding in the funding game, is in its last year. It's too bad. It should be funded on its own merits. An expenditure would attest to the country's interest in attracting and serving foreign visitors.

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