WASHINGTON – Congress acted with unusual dexterity last week in resolving issues that air travelers were facing as a result of sequestration, and Democrats now want lawmakers to act with similar haste in aiding other sectors dealing with across-the-board budget cuts.
The House and Senate tapped into some unused Federal Aviation Administration funds on Friday to make sure the nation’s 15,000 air traffic controllers avoided furloughs of up to 11 days each before Sept. 30, an occurrence that would have led to massive flight delays and cancellations across the country.
Now critics of sequestration, implemented in March when Congress and the White House were unable to strike a deal to reduce the nation’s deficit, are demanding that Washington come up with ways to similarly bolster other programs, many of which, they note, help people who earn significantly less than those who can afford a plane ticket.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, opposed the FAA deal because it “fails to address the whole impact of sequester.”
“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy are left unhelped,” Hoyer said. “Instead of dressing this serious wound with a small Band-Aid, let’s get to work on a real solution, let’s go to conference, let’s get a big deal, let’s deal with all the adverse consequences of sequester, not just those that affect the powerful air travelers of America. We ought to help them, but we ought to help everybody else as well.”
Republicans, many of whom have learned to embrace sequestrations as a means to slash federal spending and cut into the $16.8 trillion national debt, dismissed the objections and countered that the air traffic controllers’ situation was intentionally ginned up by the Obama administration to create thousands of hours of travel delays and rally opposition to the agreement.
“The disruption to America’s air traffic system over the past week was a consequence of the administration’s choice to implement the president’s sequestration cuts in the most painful manner possible,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It’s unacceptable that the FAA chose not to plan for sequestration or utilize the flexibility it already has. Americans were rightly fed up, and it’s unfortunate that the House and Senate were forced to step in and fix the problem when the president chose not to act.”
The action taken by Congress, Boehner said, will assure that air travelers “will no longer be burdened by President Obama’s flight delays and our economy will not take an unnecessary hit.”
The White House, he warned, must “learn how to do more with less.” He said that while sequestration is “bad policy,” Obama has “an obligation to implement these cuts in a way that respects the American people, rather than using them for political leverage.”
As a result of sequestration, 70,000 children will not be able to participate in Head Start, according to Democratic critics of the plan. Furloughs will force delays in processing retirement and disability claims. Four million fewer Meals on Wheels for seniors will be delivered. About 600,000 people will be dropped from the WIC program that provides healthcare and nutrition to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of 5.
Sequester also means 125,000 fewer Housing and Urban Development rental assistant vouchers will be distributed, critics continue. Emergency unemployment insurance will be cut 11 percent for 2 million of those out of work. There also 2,100 fewer food safety inspectors as a result and there are expected to be longer waits to approve new drugs. The Internal Revenue Service has furloughed about 89,000 workers, many of whom are charged with assisting 97 million taxpayers.
On the defense and homeland security side of the ledger, federal furloughs will mean the equivalent of 1,000 fewer FBI, Border Patrol, and other law enforcement agents on the job at least through Sept. 30. One-third of the nation’s combat air units are grounded.
“Sequestration is a mindless, across-the-board cutting of what we are now recognizing, and the Republicans are recognizing, of something that should not be cut,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California.
Pelosi called out congressional Republicans, asserting it is “ludicrous” that they fail to understand that sequestration is hurting more than their local airports.
“Why don’t you (Republicans) understand that there is a great deal at stake including the efficiency and the safety of our airports but also, again, the education of our children?” she said. “How can we sit there and say, ‘Four million Meals on Wheels for seniors gone? ‘But that’s not important.’ Over 70,000 children off Head Start. ‘But that’s not important.’”
Obama also chimed in, using his weekly radio address to blame congressional Republicans for the “reckless cuts” forced by sequestration and urging lawmakers to work toward “replacing it before it causes further damage.”
Regardless, Obama signed the FAA legislation even through he earlier said he was only interested in a total reworking of the issue.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, maintained the administration and its Democratic cohorts used the FAA issue to generate opposition to budget cuts.
“The president and his administration traveled the country and tried to stir up anxiety and concern and fear over the imposition of the sequester, warning that the sky would fall like a modern-day ‘Chicken Little,’” Cornyn said. “Well, it’s been almost two months since the sequester took effect and the administration’s claims that the sky would fall have each proven to be false.”
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, accused the White House of intentionally creating a crisis for air travelers.
“They could have cut spending elsewhere,” Shuster said. “They could have taken into account air traffic patterns, and made sure controllers would be in place where they were most needed. Or they could have reached out to Congress and the airlines to have a plan in place ahead of time.”
Instead, he said, the White House imposed furloughs “because there are some in the Obama Administration who thought inflicting pain on the public would give the president more leverage to avoid making necessary spending cuts and to impose more tax hikes on the American people.”
But Republicans “kept the heat on,” Shuster said. “The pressure worked, and again we’ve seen that when the people speak out, government has an obligation to listen.”