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Turbulence Ahead

Flight delays are forcing Republicans to face the facts on sequestration

Getty/Scott Olson

Denial, then anger. No, I’m not talking about the well-known stages of grief. I’m talking about the way conservatives are reacting to budget sequestration, now that its automatic cuts have hit the Federal Aviation Administration. The reaction says a lot about conservative values, their grasp of policy reality, or maybe both.

As you probably have heard, the FAA has responded to the automatic cuts by furloughing air traffic controllers—that is, ordering them to take extra days off, without pay. With fewer controllers watching over the skies, fewer airplanes can travel at one time. The FAA says staffing shortages from the furloughs led to the delay of about 1,200 flights on Monday and another 1,000 on Tuesday. The first day of delays appear to have affected the Northeast and Southern California. Since then, delays have spread to other cities, including Tampa and Las Vegas. Overall, the interruptions actually seem less severe than some experts had predicted. But the waits are expected to get worse over the summer, once travel increases. 

In an ideal world, this would shake Republican faith in sequestration as an acceptable budget policy. They’d start discussions about replacing it with some other deficit reduction plan—ideally, one that didn’t rely so exclusively on immediate and arbitrary spending cuts. This, of course, is not the way Republicans are reacting. Instead, they and their allies keep insisting that the delays are the result of Obama Administration deception and opportunism. Under the headline, “The Manufactured Sequester Crisis,” National Review’s Veronique de Rugy writes that her recent flight from Washington to New York was on time—and wonders whether, like last month’s predictions of longer security lines, the delays will turn out to be illusory. Over at the Wall Street Journal opinion page, the editors aren’t questioning whether the delays are real. Instead, they write, President Barack Obama could spare air travelers the delay by ordering the FAA to shuffle funds differently and make necessary cuts. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are making the very same argument: If air traffic is slowing down, they say, it’s because the Obama Administration wants it that way, in order to make a political point. 

Could some of the delay reports turn out to be overblown? Sure. But Transportation Department officials say they are reporting such delays as by-products of sequestration only when those delays correspond to obvious staffing shortages. And those reports at least seem credible. Here's one example: For several hours on Wednesday morning, according to officials, traffic in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport slowed. The reason, officials say, is that Chicago-area controllers didn't have the usual complement of personnel. They increased the space between flights, reducing the flow of planes through the region. A report from CNN Money cited a controller at O'Hare confirming that delays had taken place.

As for the legal questions about budget authority, the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler looked into this a few weeks ago, when the administration and Republicans began arguing about this very point. Kessler, who used to cover avaition, concluded that the FAA's case was more persuasive. Kessler, showing understandable caution, withheld a final verdict, pending further evidence. But since then Stan Collender, a former congressional staffer and widely respected expert on the budget, has also examined the debate. He is convinced the FAA had it right. Writing at his blog, Capital Gains and Games, Collender explains: 

At least 70 percent of FAA's expenses are personnel-related so it was inevitable that the 5.1 percent across-the-board sequester cut would be felt in everything the agency does including—or especially—in its primary function: managing air traffic. When you set up a system like sequestration that requires an agency or department to cut every program, project, and activity by the same percentage, and when an agency's spending is mostly for salaries and other compensation-related expenses, it's not hard to see from the start that there has to be an impact on the number of people doing that agency's work. 

…what's happened this week with the FAA has happened before in 1995 and 1996 during the two government shutdowns. … There are, however … differences between what's already happened this week and what happened 18 years ago. The first is that the White House actually had more discretion in 95-96 than it has today. President Clinton had the authority to exempt critical programs—like FAA—from the shutdown. By contract, President Obama has no such power when it comes to the sequester. 

Given time and a less arbitrary set of cuts, I'm sure, the FAA could find ways to become more efficient. Most federal agencies could, although we liberals aren't always eager to admit that. But these days denial seems to be a much bigger problem on the right, as Republicans and conservatives pretend spending cuts never cause pain. Just think about the way House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and his allies talk about the massive, unprecedented cuts they’ve proposed for Medicaid and food stamps. Independent, non-partisan analyses have suggested that many millions of people would lose food assistance—and many millions more would lose health insurance. Meanwhile, the official House Republican budget plan describes these changes as a “safety net strengthened.” 

The flight delays make it more difficult for Republicans to maintain such pretenses. As a few of us have been saying, sequestration has already taken a toll on the American public, in ways that matter a lot more than extra minutes on the tarmac. People who depend on Head Start, or Meals on Wheels, or unemployment checks, or any number of other vital programs know the budget cuts are real—because they are already losing some of the protection and assistance that government once provided. But, as Steve Benen noted the other day, "congressional Republicans see these cuts as a 'victory,' so they're inclined to leave them alone." They can't treat flight delays the same way, because delays are a big deal to business travelers. And Republicans care about business travelers.

I wish I could tell you this will all end well—that Republicans would rethink their position and start negotiating over a sequestration alternative. The next stage of grief, after all, is bargaining. But that would mean getting past denial and anger. The GOP seems in no rush to do that.