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Senate Democrats' Shameful Cave on Flight Delays

AFP/Getty Images

Try to do something about senseless gun violence and you’ll see tumbleweeds blowing across the Senate floor. Try to make life a bit less stressful for the average business traveler and you’ll have no trouble finding backup. Since the sequester forced the FAA to furlough 10 percent of its air traffic controllers this week, leading to average flight delays of roughly an hour, pretty much every senator with a mileage-club departure lounge in her state (and even some without one) had rushed to undo the cuts. Democrats Amy Klobuchar, Mark Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Carper, and Richard Blumenthal—all weighed in with legislation or quick-fix ideas. Last night, Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, struck a deal with his Republican counterpart, John Thune, to end the great trail of tears in the sky, and the Senate quickly approved it. We could be out of our misery by Friday afternoon.

I can understand why Republicans like Thune were desperate for a way out of this: The politics were brutal for them. The GOP not only leans heavily on the business-class demographic for money and votes. The party’s fingerprints were all over the knife that made the cuts. As even a Fox News report conceded, Republicans effectively triggered the sequester by refusing to negotiate with the president over tax increases. 

That’s the reason why GOP pols, who until very recently dismissed the sequester as an overhyped non-event, were suddenly sputtering with rage. A “shocking lack of management,” House appropriations committee chairman Hal Rogers hissed at FAA administrator Michael Huerta on Wednesday. “You didn’t forewarn us that this was coming; you didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it.” (Right, if only someone had warned us of the “calamity in air service” the sequester would bring about...) 

What I don’t understand is why on earth Democrats went along with this. Pretty much the only response conservatives could muster was to cry cynicism—that Obama could have shielded air traffic controllers from the cuts, but simply chose not to in a Marxist effort to heighten the contradictions. “The White House claims … it lacks flexibility,” The Wall Street Journal bleated on Wednesday. “Not so: This is a political pose to make the sequester more disruptive.” Alas, in the history of PR fights, “you caused this” (the Democratic argument) has never lost to “you didn’t do enough to stop this” (the Republican claim). I doubt this would have been the episode that broke the streak. If Democrats had held firm, they wouldn’t just have won this particular sequester skirmish. They may well have forced the GOP to junk the entire godforsaken sequester itself. 

But if the political case for holding firm on the FAA furloughs was solid, the moral case was overwhelming. Consider where we stand with the sequester: As my colleague Jonathan Cohn pointed out Thursday, the cuts have been hurting a lot of vulnerable Americans for several weeks now thanks to their effects on programs like Head Start, Meals on Wheels, and unemployment insurance. As of this week, the cuts were also nicking a lot of non-vulnerable Americans by forcing them to watch an extra loop of Headline News at Hartsfield International. At the risk of revealing my warped moral sensibilities, this strikes me as roughly in line with what you’d want in a set of budget cuts. If the political class insists on sacrifice, the sacrifice should, at the very least, be distributed among both poor and affluent. (Of course, it would be even better if they disproportionately affected the affluent, but let’s not get crazy.) This is just a basic principle of justice.

But there’s an even more important principle at work—which is that, once we’ve decided on spending cuts, the affluent must be made to understand that they lead to an increase in suffering. If they’re too insulated from the pain, they’ll be too eager to support more cuts in the future. (And by “too eager” I mean an eagerness to cut more than is justified by any economic rationale. I’m not suggesting that cuts per se are bad.) The logic here is similar to the moral logic of a military draft: The people who sit out the fighting shouldn’t labor under the delusion that wars are relatively costless, or that the costs are far-removed from their daily lives. A democracy can only function if most of us have skin in the game.1

As it happens, this was basically the reasoning behind the White House posture while negotiating the sequester in 2011. The thinking back then was that it wasn’t sufficient to protect the most vulnerable (the poor, the disabled, and the elderly—meaning no Medicaid or Social Security cuts, and few Medicare beneficiary cuts). You also needed to impose pain on the politically powerful (most notably the Defense establishment). If the GOP wanted to go ahead with crude, automatic cuts that obeyed those rules, that was their prerogative. But the wealthy and connected shouldn’t be allowed to stick other people with a burden they wouldn’t shoulder themselves. 

The problem with the deal to end the airport delays—as with so many of the other ways the sequester has been eased—is that it does away impact of the dreaded FAA cut without an alternative that would be roughly as painful for the affluent.2 It treats the delays as a kind of gratuitous sideshow to the sequester fight when in fact they’re really the whole point. "The public's going to be furious when they find out that this could have been prevented," Republican Senator Dan Coats complained to the Journal. Exactly. And it was only then that they would have had the moral standing to judge the rest of the sequester. 

  1. Note that this logic doesn’t justify the kind of domestic terrorism that the Weather Underground took up in the late 1960s and 70s. The argument is that a country’s elite have to be willing to endure some portion of the pain and suffering they inflict on their own people. Not that the American people must endure some measure of the pain and suffering that their government inflicts on other people.

  2. Gillibrand’s proposal would have paid for the fix by closing a tax loophole for the wealthy, but even there the impact would be far narrower than the FAA furloughs.