By BEN GILES, News21/CNS
PHOENIX (November 24, 2010)The National Transportation Safety Board issued significantly fewer recommendations for improvements in travel safety during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration than during any other presidency in its 36-year history.
A News21-Center for Public Integrity analysis of NTSB data shows that for most of its history, the board has been fairly consistent, issuing an average of 300 to 450 safety recommendations a year.
But after Bush took office in 2000, the agency's activity dropped to the lowest level in its history. In 2005, the board issued just 110 recommendations—by far the fewest of any year since the NTSB was established as an independent voice for transportation safety in 1974.
Over the eight years of the Bush administration, the NTSB averaged only 155 recommendations a year. That's less than half of both the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan (445) and George H.W. Bush (417) as well as the Democratic administrations of Jimmy Carter (384) and Bill Clinton (329).
The drop was noticeable in the first year of the Bush administration. In 2001, the NTSB issued 175 recommendations, down from 268 in the previous year, a 35 percent decline.
Some former board members say the decline of NTSB investigations in the Bush administration can be attributed in part to several major aviation accidents in the late 1990s, including the crashes of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 and Egyptair Flight 990 in 1999, which consumed the board well into the next decade.
But they also think there's another reason for the board's lack of aggressiveness during at least a portion of the Bush years: Ellen Engleman Conners, who was chairwoman of the board from 2003 to 2005.
Democratic board members Carol Carmody and John Goglia, along with Republican board member Richard Healing, said that Engleman Conners, who came to the NTSB from a post as administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration, discouraged investigations.
Carmody, Healing and current board chair Deborah Hersman—then serving her first year on the board—outlined their concerns in a letter to Engleman Conners in 2004. The three complained that she was slowing down work by pinching pennies to the point that staff members were taking turns going to an office supply store to buy paper with their own money.
"You couldn't buy anything without her signature," said Goglia, now an aviation safety consultant.
Engleman Conners also insisted that all board votes had to be unanimous, something that had never been common practice.
"She thought the board should vote as a whole and tried to exert pressure in that direction once or twice. That was inappropriate," Goglia said.
Goglia and Healing said they were pressured by Engleman Conners to change their votes on several occasions, including a vote in 2003 to suspend the operating certificate for a small aviation operator who had failed to take a drug test. An NTSB administrative law judge sided with the operator, saying the FAA had not scheduled the test. The FAA disputed that, and Engleman Conners agreed.
When she learned that Healing, Goglia and Carmody were voting against the suspension, Engleman Conners called a special meeting to try to change their votes, Healing said.
Healing said he was essentially told he could not leave until he voted in favor of suspension. Both he and Goglia relented and switched their votes. Carmody did not attend the meeting.
The decision was later overturned in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
In the view of her critics, Engleman Conners also blurred the traditional lines between the NTSB and the regulatory agencies that are on the receiving end of its recommendations. That included private meetings with the FAA, among others, during which Engleman Conners sought to put to rest dozens of unresolved recommendations in one sitting, Goglia and Healing said.
A besieged Engleman Conners withdrew her re-nomination for chair in December 2005. She continued to serve as a board member until resigning in May 2006, more than a year before her term expired.
Engleman Conners, who now works for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, declined repeated requests for an interview.
Carmody said Engleman Conners is an extreme example but that the other chairmen under Bush—Marion Blakey and Mark Rosenker—also were far less aggressive than past chairmen.
"Neither of them was interested in shaking up or irritating or being too aggressive with the regulators," Carmody said. "They certainly were interested in safety, but they were usually looking for ways to work things out, to compromise and see if they couldn't sit around the table and work things out."
Characterizing his interactions with regulators, Rosenker said: "My style was never to get in there and start beating people with a big bat....I always believed we were partners in the process, never to a point where we were what I would call cozy ... but we're all trying to do the right thing."
Rosenker said politics had nothing to do with the number of NTSB recommendations issued while he was chairman from 2006 to 2009. He said the number is far more influenced by career staffers who complete and write recommendations than by board members who only vote on them.
"For the most part, even though we were appointed by either a Democratic president or a Republican president, the business of what the board is is not political. It's safety," he said. "I may disagree with my colleagues, but it's normally on the merits rather than on the politics of something."
Blakey, now president of Aerospace Industries Association, a lobbying group for the nation's largest aviation manufacturers, declined to be interviewed.
NTSB staff members said there are safeguards in place to ensure they have some measure of independence.
Presidents, who nominate board members for five-year terms, can have three members from their own party, but the other two board members must be from the opposition party. One member—always of the same political affiliation as the president—is separately nominated and confirmed as chairman to serve for two years.
The chairman has no power over the other board members, and his or her vote holds no greater weight than anyone else's. But the chairman does have the responsibility of overseeing the agency's finances and guiding its staff as they pursue investigations.
NTSB staff and board members have no obligations to Congress or other government agencies. The chairman reports directly to the White House.
"That independence that the board has is pretty jealously guarded, but you can break it down," Goglia said. "The chairman can break that down because the chairman talks to the White House all the time."
Or, as former chairman Jim Hall put it: "Obviously, the board members certainly reflect the administration that appoints them."
Hall, a Democrat from Tennessee, joined the board in 1993 and served as chairman from 1994 until he resigned in 2001. He said the chairman is "basically the CEO of the agency and has a great deal of impact on what is done and isn't done by agency personnel."
Carmody, who observed Hall while she served as an aide on the Senate Commerce Committee and later served with him on the board, said the NTSB was aggressive under his leadership.
"He got in people's faces a lot. He annoyed people. And he was not shy about pushing board recommendations, having press conferences," Carmody said. "I thought the NTSB's job was to be aggressive, and if the regulators got their noses out of joint from time to time then that was kind of too bad."
Doug Rabe, a former NTSB official who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, said the NTSB is much less adversarial than it used to be.
"In the 1990s, NTSB was out to be in the headlines. And you know what? They were in the headlines because they went on scene, made a splash with the press...," he said. The last decade, he said, has "very much been cooperative."
Early indications are that the NTSB will be more active under the Obama administration than the Bush administration. The NTSB issued 240 recommendations in 2009, more than in any year of the Bush administration but still lower than past Democratic and Republic administrations.
Former board members said they are encouraged by what they've seen of Hersman, appointed chairman in July 2009 by President Obama.
After last year's deadly Metro crash in Washington, Hersman chastised the subway system for not paying more attention to safety.
"Deborah is more in the mold of the board is there to make a difference," Carmody said, "and I think she'll see that it does."
News21 reporter Ben Giles was a graduate student in the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. News21 reporters Jennifer Brookland and Richie Duchon contributed to this story. News21 is a cooperative project among 12 universities, including Maryland, designed to experiment with new forms of investigative and in-depth reporting. It is funded by the Carnegie Corp. and Knight Foundation.