Politicians Will Only Roll Back Parts of the Sequester That Hurt Them, Naturally

Congress has reached a deal to end furloughs creating airport delays -- without addressing any of the other problems of the sequester.
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Make yourselves comfortable. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Updated, 9:02 a.m.

When the sequester returned to the news at the beginning of the week, it was supposed to be different. Unlike previous sequester effects which mostly hurt the already economically, socially, or geographically marginalized in American society, these cuts were going to get serious, because they were hitting Northeast Corridor elites where it hurt: on the DCA-LGA shuttle. To be fair, there are actually flight delays across the country, but the worst and most attention-grabbing ones are at the packed urban airports that happen to be frequented by politicians and the national media. The Washington Post reports:

After months of inside-the-Beltway drama, the impact of sequestration cutbacks moved to center stage America on Monday as the aviation system was slowed by the furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers.

With about 10 percent of the controllers who direct 23,000 planes a day scheduled to be off daily until October, both industry and government officials forecast that the effect would snowball as the nation enters peak travel season.

Short on staff and besieged by brisk winds at the three big New York area airports, controllers fell behind by mid-morning Monday and never caught up. The Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports reported delays of one to three hours.

Remarkably, pilots and airline staff across the country have been explicitly blaming the sequester for hiccups and encouraging passengers to contact their elected officials. Even the perpetually jaded Alex Pareene was optimistic that this might finally convey to Congress the seriousness of the cuts:

Members of Congress are more likely to fly commercial than attend school on an Indian reservation. Their rich constituents, the only ones they listen to, are more likely to fly often than their constituents who, say, rely on federal housing vouchers. So Congress may feel a bit more urgency, then, about addressing the sequestration cuts. (Pundits and journalists, too, may start treating them more seriously.)

Of course, he was wrong. It's nice to imagine that this might lead Congress to see the folly of its ways and move to eliminate the sequester. Instead, there have been two main responses. The first is to accuse the administration of playing political games, picking and choosing where to cut so as to support its own messages. In a hearing on the Hill Wednesday, FAA chief Michael Huerta argued convincingly that consumers couldn't be sheltered from cuts: Operations make up 61 percent of his budget; payroll is most of the operations budget; and safety-related workers like air-traffic controllers are an overwhelming majority of the payroll.

It's true that the administration hasn't been squeamish about redirecting funds when necessary, sometimes earning congressional disapprobation for it. But this critique spotlights the fallacy at the heart of much thinking about the sequester: that all federal agencies can take a 5 percent slash to their budgets, across the board, without there being any noticeable decrease in the services the federal government provides to citizens. That just doesn't make sense on its face.

So enter the second, predictable response: Fix the FAA problem, leave the rest! Politico reports that not only are senators and representatives alike working toward some sort of patch that would restore enough funding to prevent the delays, the White House is also suggesting the president would sign off on an FAA-only sequester fix, though White House Press Secretary Jay Carney demonstrated Obama's steely resolve with his fiery statement that, uh, such an action "will continue to be a Band-Aid approach." (UPDATE: The Senate has passed a bill allowing the FAA to redirect funds to stop furloughs; the bill is expected to pass the House Friday.)

Just after the Boston bombing, I argued that Democrats ran a risk in linking the sequester to specifics like law enforcement, because even if they "won," the victory would likely consist of just a patch for security, and do nothing for the other affected programs. The airport lines look like another example of the same problem. The squeaky landing gear gets the grease.

If Congress does move ahead with an FAA-only fix, it ought to be grounds for bipartisan outrage. Remember, first, that the sequester was supposed to be a Sword of Damocles that would force the supercommittee to cut spending in a controlled, thoughtful way. Congress abdicated that. Now that the automatic cuts have actually taken place, Congress once again wants to sidestep its own work in such a way that spares a small portion of the population -- a portion that just happens to include them! For conservative pols, it's a betrayal of fiscal conservatism in the name of convenience. For liberal pols, it's a betrayal of social equality and a surrender to austerity, also in the name of convenience. For the rest of us, it's probably not much of a surprise.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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