Is the Obama administration trying to maximize the pain of sequestration?
As the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to furlough more than 20,000 employees and shutter nearly 150 air-traffic-control towers across the country, the answer is up in the air. Tales of turmoil at some of the nation’s busiest airports are beginning to surface, causing some to wonder whether public perceptions of sequestration may soon begin to favor the administration. The FAA has insisted these cutbacks are unavoidable, but the administration has a clear political interest in maximizing the public’s outrage, so critics aren’t buying it.
The airline industry has complained that it is caught in the middle of the political fight over sequestration and that the FAA risks interrupting services more than necessary. One industry insider tells National Review Online that the airlines are being used as a “political football” in this debate and suggests that the FAA’s cuts don’t “really have to be done in this way.”
Major airlines, as well as the industry’s leading trade organization, Airlines for America, have drafted legal memos arguing that the FAA can and should exercise greater flexibility in implementing sequestration cuts.
The memos acknowledge that the sequester does impose some rigidity on how spending reductions happen, but also maintain that the FAA has sufficient flexibility to minimize disruptions to essential operations, which the White House budget office has encouraged all federal agencies to prioritize.
Some argue that the FAA’s decision to announce employee furloughs less than a week after President Obama signed the budgetary order departs from the spirit of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman Act on which the sequestration measure was based. That legislation was accompanied by a conference report urging federal program managers to “employ all other options available to them in order to achieve savings required under a sequestration order and resort to personnel furloughs only if other methods prove insufficient.”
A January 14 memo from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget advised federal agencies tasked with implementing sequestration to “use any available flexibility to reduce operational risks and minimize impacts on the agency’s core mission in service of the American people.” But the FAA’s use of furloughs may compromise its core mission, as outlined in the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, “to provide for the safe and efficient use of navigable airspace”; even the agency itself has acknowledged that employee furloughs will reduce the efficiency of air-travel operations.
Since August 2010, Congress has been seeking information about how the agency will implement sequestration, but has yet to receive a satisfactory response. Over the past several weeks, transportation secretary Ray LaHood has ignored multiple letters from Senator John Thune (R., S.D.) and Representative Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), the top Republicans on each house’s transportation committee.
Thune and Shuster are deeply skeptical of the administration’s claims that the FAA cannot implement sequestration without resorting to furloughs and tower closings. The lawmakers made their disappointment clear about the administration’s proposal to close 149 air-traffic-control towers at regional airports across the country, noting that all of the specified towers were operational in 2009, when the FAA received less funding than it will under sequestration. Since 2000, the FAA’s operations budget has increased more than 50 percent, while domestic air traffic has declined 27 percent during the same period.
Congressional Republicans, as well as the airline industry, have asked the FAA to look elsewhere in its budget and to use its existing authority to transfer funds among programs to avoid cuts to air-traffic-control operations. Under sequestration, the FAA is required to cut $637 million, or roughly 5 percent, from its $12.5 billion budget.
Thune and Shuster identified in the FAA’s budget $2.7 billion in annual non-personnel operations costs that they say “should have been examined before furloughs were considered.” That includes $500 million in consultant fees, $179 million in travel expenses for employees, and $143 million in operating costs for the FAA’s own fleet of 46 aircraft.
“Thoroughly examining real areas of potential savings, and not resorting to scare tactics and the punishment of employees and the public for political purposes, is the only way to productively move forward and ensure that the FAA upholds its stated commitment to the flying public,” the lawmakers wrote on March 7.
Republicans appear to have notched a notable win in the recent political battle over sequestration. The significant spending cuts are pretty much the law of the land for the remainder of the fiscal year. Meanwhile, the administration’s doomsday predictions have not come to pass. Only 12 percent of Americans say the sequestration spending cuts have had a major impact on their lives, according to a Rasmussen poll released Tuesday.
But that could easily change. Federal labor regulations prevent most of the furloughs from taking effect until April, and the Obama administration is already blaming recent airport delays on staff reductions anyway. If the FAA insists on furloughing workers, the situation could get truly problematic, but Republicans remain committed to reducing federal spending where they can. “Sequestration is here to stay,” says a GOP aide. “These little scare tactics didn’t work before, and the American people are going to see right through them.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.