Turns out, angry airlines and cranky business travelers are what it takes to get Congress to act fast. After weeks of the White House warnings about how bad sequestration would be, and Republicans mocking those admonitions, both sides were quick to find a legislative fix once an obvious pain point surfaced. That discomfort came as flight delays piled up last week, owing to the furlough of air traffic controllers — a move the Federal Aviation Administration stressed was a necessary response to the sequester’s automatic and across-the-board budget cuts.
The bill, passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and 361 to 41 in the House, doesn’t give the FAA any more money. It instead grants the agency the flexibility to set its own budget priorities and, most importantly, to keep air traffic controllers on the job. It’s a power that GOP members of Congress claim the executive branch has had all along. But President Obama has declined to invoke such “scalpel” authority until now, arguing it goes against the show-no-mercy nature of sequestration. Yet that tough stance crumbled in the face of outraged frequent fliers.
So when can America expect the “Save Meals-on-Wheels” sequestration patch? And what about medical research, food safety, flood prediction, or Head Start — just the start of a long list of vital government programs facing budget cuts that don’t have constituents as powerful as the world’s airline passengers?
The fight over the FAA was especially discouraging because it was avoidable. Crude cuts aren’t what the federal budget needs; what’s clearly needed is a broader long-term deal that includes both tax increases and entitlement adjustments. But if the sequester is here to stay, and lawmakers are willing to cede budget control to the president, he might as well take the reins. Congress, apparently, has a flight to catch.