Sequester’s follies

Biggest budget problems yet to be faced

A year ago, there were such high hopes for the sequestration agreement entered into by both parties. Surely this almost-across-the-board reduction in spending that would equally hit defense, a favorite of Republicans, and a multitude of social programs, traditionally embraced by Democrats, would force a combination of much more rational cost cutting and some revenue increases. Sequestration’s sword was never meant to be a solution to an out-of-balance budget, only a threat.

It has not turned out that way.

Last week, came an announced reduction in hours by the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight controllers, which the FAA said was necessary to meet a portion of its required budget reduction. Republicans cried foul, claiming that it was another attempt – similar to ending tours of the White House or closing the Washington Monument – that was being done for publicity value. Surely, the FAA could instead cut the size of its administration, they said, or tap various pots of noncritical expense money.

No, the FAA’s leadership said, the multitude of fund categories are sacrosanct.

With airline companies and pilots’ associations up in arms, and speculation about what suddenly reduced airline flight capacity would do to the nation’s tenuous economic recovery, the Senate stepped in. At the end of the week, the FAA was given authority to draw from other money, and the controllers were put back on a full schedule.

Just in time, cynics noted, for members of Congress to travel home unimpeded for a week among their constituents.

Commentators were quick to speculate that had staffing cuts occurred at some of the federal social services organizations – Head Start was a popular example – the result would not have been the same. Those aligned with the business community, and generally those with the money to fly, had the ability to quickly marshal a far stronger lobbying effort than could social organizations, formidable as their advocates usually are.

If a hamstrung air-travel industry, which would have affected Americans’ personal and business travel, could be so quickly and forcefully averted, what is there in the sequestration contract that is sufficiently weighty to bring the two political parties to the table for serious budget talks?

We are sufficiently pessimistic to expect that in the coming weeks and months, there will be other spending reductions that will flare up and trigger a flurry of accusations, only to be set aside. Sequestration, which held promise, is proving more and more to be a paper tiger.

What Americans face is a Congress absorbed with a multitude of disagreements about the specifics of sequester spending limits, each one lacking the necessary size and consistency to make a meaningful difference in the budget.

Perhaps it would have been preferable to let the FAA continue with reducing the controllers hours, whether that was avoidable or not, to force the two parties to talk. If delayed flights are what upsets those with influence in America the most, that is exactly the catalyst that is needed. Bigger issues are at stake here.