It is rare for a member of Congress to become a lightning rod for complaints about the local impacts of a federal agency's policies, mostly because those impacts are usually diffuse and relatively invisible.
But that's the position Rep. Anna Eshoo finds herself in, along with a handful of other members of Congress around the country who are dealing with constituents angry over the arrogance and heavy-handedness of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA is rolling out a major new system for managing the flow of aircraft arrivals and departures in the busiest metropolitan areas around the nation, and there have been big changes locally in recent months that have raised the ire of many of Eshoo's constituents on the Peninsula.
The NextGen program's stated goals are to reduce aircraft fuel consumption, increase safety and capacity, and create standard flight paths that bring planes into airport landing approaches at proper spacing and on steady and gentle glide paths.
That all sounds beneficial, but in practice the program is shifting and concentrating flight paths -- which in the past had been dispersed over many cities -- over just a few communities.
Palo Alto and East Palo Alto in particular are facing a constant onslaught of planes bound for San Francisco Airport -- and, when the winds shift, planes destined for San Jose as well because the FAA has determined that the skies above Palo Alto will be the point of convergence for most inbound aircraft.
A growing, determined and organized group of citizens is pushing Eshoo and Santa Cruz-Monterey (where there are similar problems) Rep. Sam Farr to bring pressure to bear on the FAA. This week both the Palo Alto City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted resolutions urging action to address the problem.
The Palo Alto council also approved a study to collect and analyze aircraft and noise data in order to clearly document the changes and impacts, although the staff says it can't even award a contract for the work until early next year, making it a less-than-effective tool for achieving results in a reasonable time frame. An accelerated and regionally supported study would provide more leverage.
The real solution to fixing the problem, however, lies with Eshoo and other members of Congress in the Quiet Skies Caucus, formed by members of Congress representing impacted districts.
While Eshoo's current clout within the House of Representatives is diminished as a member of the minority Democratic party, the value of the strong relationship she has honed over many years with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration will now be put to the test.
After serving for 23 years in the Congress and 10 years as a San Mateo County Supervisor, Eshoo knows her way around political minefields and big egos, and she has a rare opportunity to demonstrate those skills by persuading the FAA to stand down and change the implementation of NextGen.
She has begun that process with several letters to the FAA challenging it to respond to public concerns and hold local hearings and to the House Transportation Committee urging that new legislation include a tightening of noise standards and requirements for environmental review of new flight paths.
Earlier federal legislation in 2012 authorizing the NextGen system, which Eshoo and most Democrats opposed, included exemptions from normal environmental review in order to fast track the roll-out of the badly needed technology improvements.
And last year, over objections made by Eshoo and others, the FAA made an administrative finding that the NextGen route changes in the Bay Area would have no significant noise impacts. That finding, now clearly in error, is the subject of a legal challenge by Portola Valley residents.
Neither the courts nor token FAA outreach meetings are the ideal way to achieve fairness and relief from the FAA on this issue. Eshoo is in the best position to lead this effort and must use all the political tools and resources at her disposal to forge a solution with the FAA. It is a major test of her clout and influence in Washington and of her ability to deliver a fair solution for her constituents.
Her efforts might include convening her own advisory panel of technical experts, using her influence to open up membership in the San Francisco Airport Roundtable to cities in Santa Clara County, developing a political strategy utilizing connected local Obama supporters; and taking steps to unify all Peninsula and Santa Cruz County communities behind one solution.
This is the time when having a congressional representative with 23 years of experience, of the same party as the Administration, and representing a district that has been a major campaign funding source for the President should pay dividends.