Congress flies blind

What does it require to get members of Congress to take action quickly and decisively on an issue of federal spending? Now we know. The possibility that they will be delayed in an airport terminal somewhere waiting for a flight out of town is apparently so abhorrent that the usual gridlock and party politics just don't apply.

That's the take-away from last week's lightning-fast, lopsided bipartisan votes that transferred more than a quarter-billion dollars to the Federal Aviation Administration budget so that the agency would no longer have to furlough air traffic controllers. The agency had started furloughing controllers less than 10 days ago.

Let's all agree that furloughing thousands of air traffic controllers nationwide was not a particularly good idea. But it was forced on the FAA by the across-the-board reductions required by the sequester which, as every rational person in Washington knows, was a pretty irrational way to trim federal spending.

What's so stunning about the correction, however, is how hardly a member of Congress was willing to stand up and insist that the other truly ridiculous sequester cuts weren't corrected, too. Surely, they could have started with the reductions to cancer treatment clinics — a funding decision that won't merely be an inconvenience but which advocates say will have deadly results.

Or maybe the 70,000 children who are going to be dropped from Head Start programs deserved a little advocacy, too. Do we really want to be kicking poor children out of preschool — and an opportunity for a better education that could lift them out of poverty? How about the reductions to Meals on Wheels or emergency unemployment insurance or food safety inspections?

At least it was good to hear Maryland's own Rep. Steny Hoyer last week point out that Congress cares more about airport delays than poor people. "Let's deal with all the negative effects of sequester, not just how to affects powerful air travelers," Mr. Hoyer lashed out shortly before the bill passed the House, 361-41.

Republicans have been running around for weeks claiming President Barack Obama has trumped up the effects of the sequester and that the FAA could have managed its budget reductions without the air traffic control furloughs. This was rubbish, of course.

In the case of a government shutdown, the FAA would have had authority to declare certain personnel as vital to public safety, perhaps, but the sequester is a different animal. The agency didn't have the legal right to move money from "supplies and travel," for instance, into salaries. And that's why Congress had to act to solve the problem — a point members of the GOP must have accepted since they supported the bill.

Why did the White House and Congress agree to tie their collective hands in such a foolish way two years earlier? Because, as readers may recall, sequestration was designed to be so abhorrent that it would force Democrats and Republicans to resolve their differences and find a compromise that might offer a reasonable budgetary alternative to such madness. It wasn't the size of the reductions so much as the lack of good judgment that went into them that made them so undesirable.

Of course, that didn't happen. And gradually the effects of sequester are being felt. Disrupting air travel was apparently the red line that our elected officials just couldn't tolerate. That Aunt Lucy in Anchorage won't be getting the chemotherapy she needs for her breast cancer is apparently not so difficult for these same people to face.

It was shameful that Congress allowed the sequester cuts to go through, and now it's shameful that these same folks are using a Band-Aid to fix them when a tourniquet is in order. Clearly, the only answer for the American people suffering from sequester-related budget cuts is to head to the nearest airport and occupy every parking space, restroom, lounge and hallway until enough travelers are inconvenienced to get Washington's attention.

Who knew that air travelers were the privileged group? You certainly couldn't tell from the seats in economy class on any major U.S. carrier where "privileges" are hard to come by these days. Perhaps with consumer spending down and unemployment running high, austerity measures of most any type really aren't what members of Congress should be focusing on anyway. Despite the FAA relief, they are the ones who appear to be flying blind.

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