Washington Watch: Part of sequester fixed in time flights home

by jordan blum

Advocate Washington bureau

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

Shortly before getting on airplanes to fly back to their home states, members of Congress took steps to fix one of the across-the-board, federal sequester budget cuts that went into effect in March ­— flight delays.

Before going on a one-week recess, Congress approved the Reducing Flight Delays Act to undo the employee furloughs of about 15,000 air traffic controllers nationwide that began this past week and caused the delays of lots of flights.

The resulting public uproar led Congress to act, with many Republicans arguing that the Obama administration was intentionally trying to implement the cuts to cause flight delays to make the sequester more painful.

President Barack Obama has argued for a comprehensive approach to fixing the nation’s budget problems and the $85 billion in sequestration budget cuts. But he will sign the flight delay bill into law even though he generally opposes the piecemeal approach.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday called the bill passage good news for the traveling public. But Carney also said it is a “Band-Aid” approach that doesn’t solve anything else.

Jan Moller, director of the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project, also was critical of the approach Congress took.

“It would be nice if our Congress cared as much about jobless benefits, Meals on Wheels and Head Start as they do about being inconvenienced at the airport as they head home for vacation,” Moller said, referencing other programs hurt by sequester cuts.

“This vote might have been a convenient way to get sequestration off the front page for a few days, but it does nothing to address the real issue — the fact that these cuts are hurting everyday Americans in all walks of life,” Moller added. “Instead of this piecemeal patch, Congress should have stayed in town and worked on a real fix to these harmful across-the-board cuts that includes new revenues along with prudent cuts.”

The Louisiana congressional delegation all voted for the flight bill, including all six members in the House, which approved the bill on a 361-41 vote.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, on Thursday said he opposed taking any kind of piecemeal or Band-Aid approach, but he still ended up voting for the bill. Boustany said he preferred working toward a larger “real budget agreement.”

“Frankly, I’m getting tired of just nickel-and-diming this,” Boustany said.

The sequester cuts came as a compromise in 2011 when House Republicans forced a standoff over the federal debt ceiling in a fight that could have forced the federal government to default on its payments.

Sequestration — a White House idea approved by Congress — was set up as a poison pill to force compromise, which never came. The cuts were supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, but the fiscal cliff compromise on New Year’s Day delayed the cuts until March 1.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the air traffic controller furloughs weren’t affecting Louisiana much. The FAA reported on Friday that flight delays at Louisiana airports were in the range of 15 minutes or less.

But several members of the Louisiana delegation were complaining.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, put out a news release on Thursday complaining about the administration’s approach. “The last-minute disclosure that 15,000 air traffic controllers would be furloughed is a political stunt that is needlessly delaying 40 percent of U.S. flights,” Alexander said.

The FAA and Department of Transportation have argued though that they had little leeway in how to implement the cuts and furloughs, in part because of the setup of employee unions.

Other politicians such as U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, reached out to constituents through social media on Facebook about the flight delays.

“It sounds like the FAA is deliberately taking the Obama sequester cuts out on passengers,” Vitter stated. “I want to make sure this isn’t the case.”

“Senate Democrats say enough is enough on Obama’s agenda to punish Americans any way he can over sequestration — which was his idea and he signed into law,” a more strongly worded Fleming stated. “When it comes to slowing/shutting down air traffic, even Senate Democrats have had it!”

Regardless, at least one Band-Aid has been applied.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.