Travelers Can Fly Friendlier Skies as Furloughs End
Policy + Politics

Travelers Can Fly Friendlier Skies as Furloughs End


After days of chaos at airports throughout the country, Congress acted on Friday to deep-six the furloughs of FAA air traffic controllers.

The House has put the final changes on a congressional deal that ends the furloughs, which touched off widespread flight delays and general confusion this week. By a vote of 361 to 41, the House approved a compromise hammered out in the Senate the day before. It grants the Department of Transportation flexibility to move funds around to enable the FAA to end the furloughs this weekend, while still meeting budget savings mandated under the sequester.

President Obama has promised to sign the legislation that would allow the FAA to redirect up to $253 million from airport improvements and other areas to bolster staffing and operations.

Amid widespread complaints from the traveling public, the business community and the news media, Congress rushed through the measure.  There has also been a rash of finger pointing between the two parties as to who was responsible for the debacle.

Many Republicans argued this week that the administration had that flexibility but decided to reduce the staffing schedules of air traffic controllers at major airports and temporarily close towers in 149 smaller communities to “manufacture a crisis” and draw attention to the effects of the sequester cuts that took effect March 1.

Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., today called it a “colossal management blunder,” while Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the furloughs have inflicted “needless pain on the economy and the traveling public.” 

“I can only conclude that the goal here is to try to make sequester cuts as painful as possible for the American people, and frankly threatens the safety of the public,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.

But the White House has argued otherwise, saying the sequestration law required the across-the-board reductions that resulted in about 1,500 air traffic controllers a day having to take an unpaid day off.

White House officials and congressional Democratic leaders said the action today solved the immediate problem of disrupted air traffic. But they also said it did nothing to address the larger problems of the $85 billion of mindless cuts to a broad range of social programs, military operations and unemployment insurance benefits.

“This is a band aid covering a massive wound to the economy,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, urged House Republicans to meet with Senate Democratic budget leaders to try to work out a compromise budget plan that replaces sequestration with a more sensible series of cuts and tax revenue increases.

“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups that will be impacted by this irresponsible policy are left unhelped,” said Hoyer, who opposed the bill. “… Let’s get to work on a real solution. Let’s go to conference, let’s get a big deal.” The controversy over the FAA’s furloughs blew up as Congress was preparing to depart for yet another recess, and lawmakers scrambled to solve the problem before having to face angry constituents back home. 

Federal officials had predicted that the controller furloughs, intended to save $200 million this fiscal year, would result in as many as 6,700 flight delays each business day. Through Thursday, the number of flights arriving or departing behind schedule averaged about 2,800, with many of them attributed to weather problems in key hub airports, according to The Washington Post.

The airline industry filed suit and lobbied hard to end the controller furloughs. In announcing record first-quarter profits Thursday, Southwest Airlines’ chief executive, Gary Kelly said, “The potential effects from government sequestration” made him cautious about April revenue.

It seemed obvious that the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) viewed the airline delays as a way to highlight the effects of sequestration for an American public less likely to be affected directly by furloughs of federal office workers and other less visible cutbacks. Their goal has been to force Congress’s hand to end sequestration –a budget gimmick that initially was proposed by the White House during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations.

The president is now distancing himself from sequestration, saying it was a terrible policy never meant to take effect, and he blamed Republicans for refusing to address the problem. Republicans, meanwhile, roundly blame Obama for the predicament, though many of them voted for it in the House and Senate.

There also has been a major dispute over whether Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA officials could have found a creative way to move funds around to avert the furloughs of air traffic controllers without congressional intervention. The administration argued it was hamstrung by the law and Republicans cited hundreds of millions of dollars of special office accounts and travel funds that could have been used.

Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and now a senior fellow with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, sides with the administration in arguing it would have been difficult – if not impossible – for the FAA to get around the furloughs under the existing law. Chapter 20 of Title II of the U.S. Code, otherwise known as “Emergency Powers To Eliminate Budget Deficits,” provides, in excruciating detail, instructions to the president on how to prepare a sequestration order, Lilly wrote this week.

“Not only does Congress forbid agencies from picking and choosing which programs in the agency will be targeted for cuts, but it also forbids them from singling out projects and activities within any of the programs they manage for disproportionate reductions,” Lilly said. “As a result, the FAA cannot choose the obvious candidate for absorbing the 2013 sequester reduction …. It cannot even choose among the various projects or activities within Air Traffic Operations … Everything must be cut the same.”