It’s unlikely that the first thing that ran through your mind the first time you saw the now-ubiquitous video of a man being forcibly dragged off a United flight because it had been overbooked was, “I wonder what Congress is going to do about this?!”
But, never fear, because Congress has already set itself in motion to solve this problem. Or, more accurately, put out statements on how terrible it all is. Which is basically the same thing!
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, quickly called for an “investigation” into the rough treatment of the United passenger.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, used the high-profile incident to tout her support for a Passenger Bill of Rights.
The initial Passenger Bill of Rights was a set of rules and regulations issued by the Department of Transportation in 2009 following a series of incidents in which travelers were kept in planes sitting on the tarmac for hours on end. In 2013, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released an updated set of regulations that extended the tarmac restrictions and also gave passengers more rights as they related to lost bags and, wait for it, being bumped off flights. (Here’s the 2013 release on the new rules.)
Look, I get it. Members of Congress have to make sure they are regarded as responsive to their constituents. And, there are very few issues that touch more people than air travel and — in particular — overbooking by the airlines. Everyone has been in a situation in which a flight is overbooked. And none of us liked it.
And, yes, it’s possible that if people like Van Hollen and Klobuchar — both up-and-coming senators with an eye on their national futures — kick up enough dust, Congress might hold hearings on what United did wrong and how it can avoid something similar happening again. (DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has called for just such hearings.)
But, if past is prologue, this incident, which seems so, so important right now, will fade within days. And so too will any momentum for it within the halls of Congress.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether the federal government should involve itself in the United incident on Tuesday, but he demurred. “There is plenty of law enforcement to review a situation like that,” Spicer said. “Let’s not get ahead of where that review goes.” He did, however, say he did not “necessarily” see that the incident needed a “federal response.”
Moments like this serve as a useful reminder that Congress is an inherently reactive body. When an issue captures the national imagination like this one, Congress’ first inclination is to rush in, hold hearings and make recommendations. They do so because they want their constituents to know that they are in the trenches fighting the good fight.
None of which is a bad thing. But, it’s worth remembering that for all the calls for investigations and hearings, it’s uniquely possible Congress does a total of absolutely nothing when it comes to Americans’ rights as airline passengers.