Air Traffic Slowdown is Manufactured Crisis

Donald Lambro

4/26/2013 1:39:00 PM - Donald Lambro
WASHINGTON -- President Obama is clearly playing a nasty political game with the air traffic controller furloughs that have forced severe airline delays across the country.

It's not the first time he's exploited the budget-cutting sequestration law for political purposes. Earlier this year, he tried to stir up fears that our economy would be hit by fiscal Armageddon if the Republican House didn't submit to his tax-hiking, big-spending demands.

But his hysterical claims that our food would be unsafe, America's defenses would crumble and the elderly would lose their benefits have proven to be groundless.

A headline in Thursday's Washington Post states that "Defense firms are not yet suffering from budget cuts." Defense Department contractor General Dynamics, for example, reported its first-quarter sales dipped a little to $7.4 billion, and Northrop Grumman said sales were down slightly to $6.1 billion. The defense industry is doing fine.

So the sky is not falling, the government is beginning to see higher revenues, the deficit appears to have shrunk a little and Social Security checks are going out on time.

But over at the Federal Aviation Administration, they're playing a different game, hitting the air-flying public and air freight industry where it hurts the most: lengthy delays that cost time and money.

FAA officials say sequestration cuts have forced them to sharply reduce the number of air traffic controllers and that they had no other options.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill says the White House is playing hardball budget politics with the FAA and the airlines, and that the spending cuts could have fallen elsewhere in the FAA's vast bureaucracy.

"This is a manufactured crisis," says Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that approves funding for the FAA.

Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate transportation committee, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, its ranking Republican, shot off an angry letter to the FAA, demanding an accounting of the furloughs and its costs. They were not buying the administration's explanations that their hands were tied by the sequestration process.

"Many stakeholders argue that you have flexibility within your budget to avoid or minimize air traffic controller furloughs," they wrote.

In fact, the FAA has some flexibility over where the cuts can fall, but it zeroed in on the most critical part of its budget, knowing it would trigger a political explosion.

High-level officials on Capitol Hill gave me two lengthy legal memorandums that thoroughly analyzed the budget laws governing the FAA's sequestration. Their conclusions: The FAA has some flexibility in making its budget cuts, and that it has authority to transfer funds from one account to another to ease the impact of sequestration.

There are seven distinct programs under FAA authority and "the FAA retains discretion -- at least as a matter of sequestration law -- with respect to how to implement cuts within each of these seven activities, so long as the uniform percentage reduction for the overall activity is achieved," one memo concluded.

"The statutory requirement of uniformity, in other words, does not restrict the FAA's choices about how best to reduce spending levels for items within each of the budget activities consistent with its statutory responsibilities," the memo added.

A second legal analysis provided to me by senior GOP officials cited statutory appropriation laws and rulings from the Office of Management and Budget that furloughs should be considered only "as a last resort."

Citing the congressional conference report governing federal pay provisions, this memo states:

"The conferees urge program managers to employ all other options available to them in order to achieve savings required under a sequestration order and resort to personnel furloughs only if other methods prove insufficient.

"Because furloughs would, as the FAA has indicated, impede air traffic operations and threaten airspace efficiency in a highly intrusive and public manner, the FAA should do all within its power to avoid that disruption with OMB's priorities," the memo said.

As the slowdown worsened at our busiest airports this week, the White House made little, if any, pretense about what this fight was really all about: political payback for being forced to accept the sequestered spending cuts.

"We did everything we could to avert the sequester, and unfortunately Republicans decided as a political matter that it was a home run for them to inflict this upon the American people," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

What Carney doesn't acknowledge is that the sequester language also was approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate and signed into law by the president.

There's another important point that has gotten lost in all of this, a senior House Republican official told me. "Even if they believe they have to resort to some furloughs, they obviously can make decisions about where the furloughs fall," the official said.

"Put in place a plan that would reflect where they would have the least impact on the public. Instead, they've chosen to implement these furloughs in the most careless way possible. Did they do any research about what is the most effective way to do this? Did they get any input from the airlines? What planning went into place here? Apparently none," he said.

In a blistering Senate speech Wednesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out that "the Obama administration knew about the sequestration for months. Yet it gave the traveling public and Congress only three days' notice before implementing the furloughs that are now being blamed for these delays."

The result: Airline schedules are in chaos, the FAA's budget decisions are being run out of the West Wing, and Obama is still playing "blood sport" politics on Capitol Hill.