Our long national nightmare is finally over. After a week of experiencing some delays at many major airports, Congress acted in the last 24 hours and passed a bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Agency to bring back air controllers from the furloughs that were forced upon them by the budget sequester. The legislation gives the secretary of transportation the ability to manage the ample funds left to the FAA to perform essential services. Of course, that is exactly what Republicans have been asking their Democratic congressional colleagues and the White House to do for the entire federal government since the sequester went into effect. Since it would mitigate the effects of the sequester and end any talk of a budget deal that would raise taxes, the president and his party have refused to consider any such commonsense measure. But the idea of forcing their constituents to stand in line at security checks at airports was too terrible to contemplate, and the Democrats finally gave in after a week on this one point.
This episode demonstrates two basic facts about the entire sequester controversy.
One is that the pain being inflicted on some people as a result of across-the-board, rather than targeted, cuts is entirely unnecessary and can almost immediately be remedied by the Democrats getting down off their high horses and agreeing to GOP demands to extend the same courtesy granted the FAA to the rest of the government.
The second is that the white flag the Democrats quickly ran up on the FAA furloughs illustrates they know they’ve failed to convince the country to pressure Republicans to give in on tax increases in order to create a grand budget deal.
It should be conceded that the sequester is a stupid idea and one that the White House—which suggested it in the first place and resisted efforts to lessen its effects until now—is right when it says that it should never have been put into effect. As our Max Boot has written many times, its effect on the U.S. military is especially unfortunate and Congress should have acted to exempt the Pentagon from it months ago.
But if most of the public isn’t exactly up in arms about the sequester, as President Obama expected they would be, it also shows they understand that a bloated federal budget needed trimming. The sequester cuts are a mere drop in the bucket attempting to bail out the ocean of government debt. But as some conservative Republicans who have learned to love the sequester are pointing out, it was the only way anyone has found to make actual cuts—rather than reductions in the amount of increase in spending—in recent memory.
The point is every federal agency, including the military, could, if allowed the flexibility given the FAA, reduce expenditures without compromising their ability to perform the basic functions the public expects it to handle. As Rich Lowry pointed out in his latest Politico column the FAA holdup was entirely unnecessary:
The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, says he has no choice but to disrupt the nation’s aviation in implementing the sequestration. He has to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget. Only 15,000 of the FAA’s 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on Monday more than 1,000 flights were delayed. …
The FAA should be able to manage with a little less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996. The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request.
Democrats have been trying to sell the country on the idea that the sequester is an evil that was mandated by the takeover of the House of Representatives by a group of Tea Party extremists. But rather than storming Congress to force them to bow to the president’s demands for more taxes in a grand budget deal, the public has yawned. Whatever they think of Republicans, most people think forcing the government to make do on less—as they have been forced to do in hard economic times—is a good idea. Rather than hurting the GOP, the sequester has helped it.
If the president was counting on the budget helping him lay the groundwork for a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2014, he was mistaken. The hysteria they’ve tried to feed on this issue has fizzled. It’s time for him to acknowledge that error and start negotiating with Congress rather than trying to dictate to it.