Should Congress fix only the sequester cuts causing flight delays?

Peter Weber
The Week
American Airlines passengers wait in line for a flight at Miami International Airport on April 16.

People are justifiably cynical about this sudden Band-Aid for the one part of the sequester that's affecting Congress

What does it take to get Congress to act these days? After a promising start, the "regular order" budget process is already mired in disorder, and the House and Senate are at loggerheads over immigration reform and a million other things. Senate Democrats couldn't pass gun legislation, and House Republicans just had to pull a bill to shore up a high-risk insurance fund under ObamaCare. Apparently, however, disruptions to air travel are a step too far in Washington's simmering game of partisan chicken.

On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration started furloughing its employees — including air traffic controllers — to fulfill its mandated budget cuts under the across-the-board sequestration. On Thursday night, the Senate unexpectedly took up and passed the "Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013," which gives the FAA the authority to transfer $253 million from other parts of the FAA budget — most likely from airport improvement funds — to keep air traffic controllers on the job. The House is expected to pass the bill as early as Friday.

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Politico's transportation editor was, um, impressed:

I have never covered a bill that was introduced and passed all in the same day, but flight delays do some crazy things it seems

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— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) April 26, 2013

The more common reaction to this sudden flurry of legislative activity is cynicism. This Band-Aid approach "ought to be grounds for bipartisan outrage," says David Graham at The Atlantic. Congress abdicated its responsibility when it allowed the "Sword of Damocles" sequester cuts to take effect. "Now that the automatic cuts have actually taken place," says Graham, "Congress once again wants to sidestep its own work in such a way that spares a small portion of the population — a portion that just happens to include them!"

Unlike previous sequester effects which mostly hurt the already economically, socially, or geographically marginalized in American society, these cuts were going to get serious, because they were hitting Northeast Corridor elites where it hurt: On the DCA-LGA shuttle. [The Atlantic]

It's not just that the flight delays affect members of Congress, says Alex Pareene at Salon. They affect the wealthy, and studies have proved what we already knew: "Politicians are quite responsive to the views of their rich constituents, but not particularly concerned with anyone else." So if you happen to "rely on food pantries and Head Start and Meals on Wheels and unemployment benefits," or are a middle class government worker, Pareene elaborates, you'll continue to feel the pain from this senseless, easily fixed fiscal snafu. The Huffington Post's Sam Stein offers a way to overcome the apparent issue:

Head Start kids should just start complaining about the long tarmac delays they're dealing with

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— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) April 26, 2013

David Weigel at Slate also notes that the conservative group Americans for Prosperity — which congratulated Congress for allowing the sequester to take effect — gathered Thursday at Washington's Reagan National Airport "to protest... sequestration," specifically the flight delays. About two dozen "professional conservatives.... waved both home-made signs and AFP-branded signs reading 'Keep Your Politics Off Our Planes.'"

This is about politics, and it's really dumb, says Patrick Smith at The Daily Beast. Passengers are stuck in "a cynical game of stalemate" between Democrats and Republicans, but this is more than an inconvenience. It's a blow to the economy. "The trickle-down effects of a single canceled flight can wind up costing a carrier hundreds of thousands of dollars," and if Congress doesn't fix at least this side effect of the sequester, it means that lawmakers are "intent on bankrupting the country's airlines and making tens of millions of citizens even angrier than they already are."

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What a peculiarly American episode of incompetence and irresponsibility: Can you see such a thing ever happening in Europe or Asia, where governments are quick to recognize how vital commercial air travel is to their economies? Our leaders don't seem to understand, or don't seem to care, how much the country stands to lose through long delays and cancellations: The tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity and wasted time every day. [Daily Beast]

So maybe it's the economy spurring Congress to action rather than the personal hit lawmakers and their wealthy constituents are taking. But it probably doesn't feel like that to the thousands of Americans who will go on feeling the pinch of unintentional austerity. Here's the legislation:

FAA Furloughs

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