Denver International Airport chief Phil Washington faced questions from Republican senators Wednesday about his qualifications and his past during a combative confirmation hearing on his nomination to head the Federal Aviation Administration.
The long-awaited hearing underlined party-line divisions, with Democrats largely lauding his leadership record. Republicans pointed to the longtime transit executive’s limited aviation experience and questions about an ongoing public corruption investigation dating to his tenure at the L.A. Metro transit agency.
Washington was appointed CEO of Denver’s airport in mid-2021, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was among supporters in the hearing room Wednesday.
“I believe your record is woefully lacking,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told Washington. “And in fact, you have zero aviation safety experience. And I don’t believe you’ll have the votes for confirmation.”
But Democrats, including both of Colorado’s senators and Sen. Maria Cantwell, the chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, defended President Joe Biden’s pick during the three-hour session.
Ahead of the hearing, Cantwell called Washington “an experienced, mission-driven leader who has successfully led three of the largest and most complex transportation organizations in the country,” also including metro Denver’s Regional Transportation District.
Washington argued he’d bring “a fresh perspective” to the FAA, which in recent years has faced accusations of oversight failures and coziness with the industry it regulates.
“The safety of the traveling public will remain my top priority, as it has been for me leading the third (busiest) airport in the world, two large transit agencies, and men and women in uniform,” the Army veteran said.
He appeared headed for a close committee vote in the coming weeks. Democrats hold a slight majority in both the committee and the full Senate.
If confirmed, Washington would be the FAA’s first Black administrator.
It’s been a year since the FAA has had a confirmed administrator, and Washington’s nomination has dragged on for eight months. In January, following the breakdown of a key FAA system that grounded flights, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he’d push the nomination forward.
Cruz and other Republicans pointed out that federal law requires that the FAA leader “have experience in a field directly related to aviation.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet pointed out that Washington’s DIA tenure meets that qualification and decried “an attempt in recent months to distract from his record and, frankly, impugn his character.”
Near the end of the hearing, Cruz tangled with Washington over the active L.A. Metro investigation, now overseen by the California attorney general’s office.
The probe, which appears to target other public officials, concerns the 2016 awarding of a no-bid contract for a sexual harassment hotline for riders. Washington said it was initiated before he became L.A. Metro’s CEO, that he stood by the agency’s handling of it, and that while his name has surfaced in search warrants for records, no investigators have contacted him.
“I have nothing to hide, senator,” Washington said.
But Cruz suggested it would be “truly remarkable” for the committee, and the Senate, to confirm a nominee while a public corruption investigation was still underway.
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