Before members rush for airports, Congress ends sequester flight delays

Once again, the prospect of missing flights home helped Congress resolve a standoff, this time over sequester cuts that had furloughed air traffic controllers and caused flight delays this week. 

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Travelers stand in line at Los Angeles International airport Monday. Flight delays piled up as thousands of air traffic controllers were forced to take an unpaid day off because of federal budget cuts.

Jet fumes.

In Congress, it’s a phrase used humorously by staffers and aides hinting that the alluring scent of idling jets has a magical way of speeding up the legislative process when time back in lawmakers’ home districts draws near.

On Thursday night and Friday afternoon, however, the Senate and House were literally moved to action by jet fumes: Congress rushed legislation to patch funding for air traffic controllers furloughed by the automatic budget cuts known as the “sequester” just before jetting home for a week in their states.

The Senate passed the bill without a vote Thursday night. House lawmakers approved the legislation, 361-41, before scampering out of town Friday.

The legislation stopped FAA staff reductions that left planes idling on runways across the country and canceled some flights altogether.

The first impact of the legislation, which White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the president would soon sign, would be to stop flight delays (of which there were 6,000 more between Sunday and Wednesday of this week than in the same time last year, according to the air traffic controllers’ union) and potentially reopen dozens of rural airports that would have been shuttered by the furloughs.

But it also shows that the Democratic goal of reaching a grand bargain of targeted spending reductions and higher taxes in place of the $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts now mandated over the next decade has some short-term political problems.

Like air traffic controllers, it turns out.

While President Obama wants to find an alternative for all of the roughly $80 billion in sequester cuts this year, Republicans have instead tried to push the responsibility for deciding who gets furloughed or which programs get cut onto Mr. Obama and his executive agencies by giving them discretion to decide which specific budget items get whacked. The sequester measure, as it originally passed Congress, required across-the-board cuts. 

Republicans say the executive discretion creates flexibility, and say that the president is playing political games by, as happened this week, air traffic controllers get furloughed when the Federal Aviation Administration could have shifted $253 million from less-vital airport improvement grants to keep them on the job.

Democrats are loath to place responsibility for meting out sequester cuts at the president’s feet for fear of being blamed for reductions they don’t think should happen in the first place.

On Friday, the GOP claimed victory.

When Republicans started a drumbeat of complaints about flight delays early this week, Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded by asking for reductions in a contingency account for war spending that is an often-sought honeypot for congressional budgeteers looking for funny money to offset the cost of keeping air traffic controllers on the job.

Then, with the smell of jet fumes in the air, Democrats relented and adopted the shift-the-pain-around approach.

“By last night,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia said in the letter to colleagues Friday morning, “Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach.”

In saying that the president would sign the bill, Mr. Carney argued that Congress should be figuring out ways to fix the entirety of the sequester, not just patch one highly visible public part of it.

“The delays are a problem not just for business travelers and members of Congress but for many Americans, and that’s a real consequence of the sequester,” Carney said. “We call on members to show as much concern for other Americans who are being harmed... [the president] believes this is a Band-Aid covering a massive wound to the economy.”

Asked whether the White House might have held out for a fix to programs such as the pre-school program Head Start in exchange for the fix, Carney retorted: “We should hold hostage American travelers to Congress’s refusal to act?”

The corner that Republicans had backed Democrats into is obvious.

“As Americans are traveling to see their kids graduate from college, flying across the country to take care of their elderly parents, and taking business trips that will help support their families,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, the GOP's fourth-ranking House leader, “it’s time for the president and the FAA to end this manufactured crisis and stop these unnecessary delays.”

It wasn’t the first time an industry (in this case, aviation) had gotten around the sequester. The meat industry, too, earned a fix. And several departments including the Pentagon, Homeland Security, and Justice all got more finely tuned budgets in order to help them deal with the sequester.

But all of that adds up to a reminder that the entire sequester process is just as Congress described it when it was put into place during the debt ceiling deal in 2011: a dumb, meat-ax approach that was never supposed to be, said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia on the House floor after the vote on Friday,

No matter how many holes Congress plugs, said Representative Connolly, “sooner or later we have to recognize the dike itself is being undermined.”

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