Jewish World Review April 26, 2013/ 16 Iyar, 5773
The FAA fiasco
By Rich Lowry
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The air traffic controller furloughs are the White House tours of the sky.
From time immemorial, a government that doesn’t want to tighten its fiscal belt finds high-profile ways to inconvenience the public in the hopes of turning it against spending cuts. In keeping with this tried-and-true so-called Washington Monument strategy, the White House canceled tours in the immediate aftermath of sequestration. In an escalation, the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed air traffic controllers this week, causing widespread flight delays.
Somehow, the Obama administration managed to find the federal employees perhaps most essential to the nation’s transportation and commerce, and send them home. It found one of the few categories of federal workers that operate something, and cut it. It found a way to make one of the most aggravating aspects of modern American life, air travel, even more aggravating.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rushed to the Senate floor to say that, “In airports across the country, millions of Americans will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration.” He then plugged for a budgetary gimmick to cancel most of sequestration, so spending can resume as usual. Reid knows the script of the Washington Monument strategy very well.
The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, says he has no choice but to disrupt the nation’s aviation in implementing the sequestration. He has to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget. Only 15,000 of the FAA’s 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on Monday more than 1,000 flights were delayed.
The furloughs hit all airports equally, no matter how busy they are, or how central they are to the system. As far as the FAA is concerned, the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center, with more than 8,000 takeoffs and landings a day, is the just the same as Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa, with fewer than 80.
The FAA should be able to manage with a little less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996. The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request.
In 1986, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic deficit-reduction law, the model for today’s sequestration, went into effect, mandating a cut of more than 4 percent at the FAA. Yet no controllers were furloughed. In past budget showdowns, air traffic controllers have been considered essential employees.
As Sen. Tom Coburn has pointed out in letters to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “The FAA employs a variety of lawyers, public affairs specialists, speechwriters, administrative staff, congressional affairs staff, community players, management and program assistants, and other employees that aren’t immediately critical to FAA’s mission.” Why can’t they disproportionately contribute to the savings of sequestration? The operations account where the sequestration cuts largely fall also has $2.7 billion in non-personnel costs.
But Huerta claims sequestration gives him no wiggle room. He is forced into the most stupidly disruptive across-the-board cuts possible and has to get some $100 million in savings through cutbacks on controllers. This is the tale of woe he brought to a recent congressional hearing. Asked by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky if he had requested any additional flexibility from Congress, he replied, “No.”
In Washington, incompetence can never be discounted, and certainly the FAA did a poor job preparing for sequestration. But apparently no one wanted to fix the problem.
The Obama administration is extremely creative in finding the flexibility it needs to implement Obamacare or to ignore the nation’s immigration laws. It resorts to slush funds and executive orders and whatever means necessary. When it comes to avoiding the enormous economic costs of increased delays at airports, to saving so many people from the lost hours of sitting in a terminal or on a tarmac, well then, the administration is the very picture of passivity. It is helpless before the strict letter of the law.
Actually, its interpretation of the law is almost certainly wrong. In separate letters to Delta, both Paul Clement and Seth Waxman, former solicitors general in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, respectively, conclude that although limited, “the FAA retains a degree of flexibility” (in the words of the Clement letter).
That the administration didn’t exploit that flexibility to the hilt, or failing that, seek more from Congress, is a travesty. The airline industry has been screaming bloody murder about the effect of willy-nilly air traffic controller furloughs and sued to try to get a better plan out of the FAA. The head of the Air Line Pilots Association, Lee Moak, believes that “they’re using the air system as a political football.”
If there were justice in the world, Michael Huerta would be fired and Ray LaHood impeached. Short of that, Congress should act without delay to free air travelers from the grip of the Washington Monument strategy.
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