GOP Says Obama ‘Manufactured’ Air Traffic Crisis
Business + Economy

GOP Says Obama ‘Manufactured’ Air Traffic Crisis

REUTERS/Bernd Settnik/Pool

Sequester politics just got dirty.

Seizing on the public’s frustrations with sudden delays in the nation’s major airports, Senate Republicans on Tuesday charged the Obama administration with “manufacturing” a slowdown of airline flights by furloughing FAA traffic controllers rather than finding other savings under the sequester.

Their accusation is on the heels of a lawsuit filed against the FAA by Airlines for America, the Regional Airline Association, and the Air Lines Pilot Administration International that claims furloughs were avoided during a similar sequestration in 1986.

President Obama had been warning about the fallout of the $85 billion of automatic cuts for months and proposed a replacement in his 2014 budget. The sequester was authorized under the 2011 Budget Control Act with Obama’s blessing, but he subsequently argued that the across  the board cuts would do too much damage to defense and domestic programs and called for a replacement that included tax increases.

The GOP will not consider any solution that includes higher taxes – even one that would spare the Defense Department from cuts. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Senate GOP leaders yesterday accused the president and Transportation Department officials of playing politics by intentionally causing delays in hundreds of flights around the country to draw attention to the effects of the automatic across-the board spending cuts approved by Congress.

On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration began to furlough employees that triggered delays in 7,269 flights. The agency plans to keep 10 percent of its 13,000 air traffic controllers at home every day through September, in an effort to save $200 billion of the $600 million the FAA needs to save overall.

The FAA is one of a handful of departments and agencies that is furloughing employees to save money the 5 percent of their annual budget required by this year’s sequester. The Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to close its doors for seven non-consecutive days, while the Internal Revenue Service’s is shutting down taxpayer assistance centers nationwide. But a number of agencies have found ways to cut their budgets without cutting services to the public or furloughing employees.  The Department of Health and Human Services, the General Accounting Administration and the State Department have cut expenses, including travel, conferences and consulting fees. 

“I believe this is a manufactured crisis,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon in discussing the disruptions of service at  airports around the country that will only grow worse during the peak season for travel this summer . “There are many options that the FAA itself and the Department of Transportation as the whole has to avoid this disastrous impact on the traveling public,” she said.

Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, complained that FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta failed to mention the furlough plans when he testified before her subcommittee last week. “We specifically asked him about furloughs,” she said. “We discussed the impact of sequestration. Not once did he talk about the impact on the traveling public.” 

Republicans say they will seek to have Huerta recalled to the Hill to justify the furloughs. The FAA did not return calls from The Fiscal Times.

Collins and other Republicans outlined a number of possible budget alternative to furloughing the nation’s air traffic controllers.  One would be to tap into the Airports Improvement Program, to take advantage of an estimated $700 million of unobligated funds. Also, the FAA could use some of the  more than $540  million for consultants, $179 million for official travel,  and $134 million for office supplies, according to Republicans. “You would think that there would be lower priority items that they could choose to cut back as opposed to going to this very essential area and forcing a lot of Americans who are trying to get places to sit on the runway awaiting clearance,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., a member of the Budget Committee, said the sequester “is entirely manageable” by the FAA.  “But you can only conclude – like the shutting down of the White House tours during the spring break – is meant to impact in the most negative way possible on the air-traveling public.

“Why the administration would want to impose this sort of inconvenience and hardship on  millions of Americans rather than do like every other family or every other business has to do and live within their means is beyond me,” he said.

RELATED: Your Guide to Gov't Furloughs That Hurt Most

The White House this week maintained that the blame lies with Republicans. “This is a result of sequester that is never meant to be law,” Obama spokesperson Jay Carney said on Monday. “These furloughs, that’s the unfortunate fact of arbitrary, across-the-board cuts like this.”

In late March, Obama signed a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running through the end of September that left in place the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts. Obama had sought an agreement with the Republicans to blunt the effects of the sequester with alternative spending cuts and tax increases, but the GOP would not go along with that approach.  As a compromise, the two sides agreed to ease the impact of the cuts on government food inspection and college assistance for active duty military personnel.

The FAA argues the furloughs to air traffic controllers are required because, by law, it must make cuts across its budgets, even to workers who have previously been deemed “essential employees,” according to media reports.  Of course, that would mean the agencies that are not furloughing employees are breaking the law. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said yesterday he was very concerned about the effects of sequestration on air travel, including in his home state, but that there are plenty of other government programs and services suffering from the automatic cuts that should be addressed as well. His solution would be to use the $96.7 billion Overseas Contingency Operations Fund for the military, State Department and Agency for International Development to offset the sequester.

“Everything dealing with sequestration is a serious situation,” Reid told The Fiscal Times. “It’s not only airports, but as I indicated out here it’s medical research, homeless veterans, meals on wheels, everything. And we should do away with sequestration, especially for the next five months.