Back in February I argued that it wasn’t necessary to cut air traffic control in order to meet the legal requirements of the sequester. I argued that the Administration also already had the legal authority to exercise its discretion in order to minimize the impact to sequester cuts on air traffic control.
Unfortunately, air traffic control slowdowns would be a ‘visible impact’ of the sequester, and so they were being ginned up for potential political gain — to argue that the sequester (and government spending cuts generally) are too painful, and to force Republicans to cave on taxes.
Some commenters argued that it wasn’t possible to cut the FAA budget without furloughing air traffic controllers, since the FAA budget was so heavily skewed towards payroll. That argument turns out to be inaccurate, since new legislation instructs the FAA not to furlough air traffic controllers and to make other cuts to the agency budget instead. The FAA has not claimed to be unable to do this.
As for whether air traffic delays were a political ploy, liberals critics of the President complaining about this new legislation certainly believe that it was.
The flight delays created the largest and loudest public backlash against sequestration since its automatic cuts kicked in nearly two months ago.
By agreeing to provide special treatment to air travelers, Democrats eliminated a major source of public pressure to address sequestration in its entirety, and created a precedent that sequestration’s consequences ought to be addressed by moving funds around — not by raising the revenue, which is fiercely opposed by Republicans.
(It strikes me as odd that not furloughing government employees is seen as a win for Republicans.)
So the only remaining question here is whether the legislation was necessary at all. My critics would argue that the legislation was necessary because the FAA lacked the legal authority to exercise discretion in how the sequester affected its various activities. I argue that the legislation was necessary because the Administration was unwilling to to use its discretion (and indeed, was already using its discretion in furloughing controllers).
My critics contend that sequestration was intended to cut all programs equally, as a blunt instrument (well, not all programs).
I contended instead that the sequestration’s requirement to apply cuts uniformly to “programs,” “projects” and “activities” relies entirely on the Office of Management and Budget to define those things as they are defined nowhere in law (they are not the same as ‘accounts’). And further, the Administration takes great liberties with its authority independent of legislation (as had the previous administration), it would have fallen safely within established precedent to do so here, and indeed ‘problem-solving’ is politically popular and challenges to this authority would have been seen as obstructionist. (Further, since Republicans were proposing legislation to grant the Administration extra authorities to exercise discretion, they were boxed in and precluded from arguing against the exercise of this discretion.)
Ultimately, what’s important for travelers is that air traffic control returns to ‘normal’. But normal is likely not to be good enough, as not only will these same cuts become an issue again come the new fiscal year (October 1) absent additional action from either side, but the system itself is outmoded. The FAA’s long-term approach is more technology. Transportation researcher Bob Poole argues for the de-politicizing funding of air traffic control, the way that Australia, Canada, Germany, and scores of other countries have done and the way that the Clinton Administration had proposed doing in 1994.
I personally believe that a decade from now planes should be more like cars (albeit with, and aided by, much greater technology) and that decentralized traffic management will allow for much greater air traffic throughput.