FAA's Special Treatment: "Devastating Indictment" of Washington

Congress acts when its members are personally affected, sequester-watchers argue

By Emily Feldman
|  Friday, Apr 26, 2013  |  Updated 3:12 PM EDT
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FAA's Reprieve: "Devastating Indictment" of Washington

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The bill will allow air traffic controllers who were furloughed to return to their full-time schedules.

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As expected, the House Friday passed a bill that will allow the FAA to end sequester-forced furloughs that have been causing flight delays around the country this week.

The bill, which will use money from an FAA infrastructure improvement account to pay the salaries of furloughed air traffic controllers, sailed through the House 361 to 41. The previous night it passed unopposed in the Senate, over objections from some Democrats who didn't see why the airline industry, over all the other industries affected by the federal sequester, should receive special treatment.

"We ought not to be mitigating the sequester's effect on just one segment, when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy will be left unhealed," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, according to The Hill.

White House press secretary Jay Carney likened the $253 million money shift to a "band-aid" in a Thursday press conference, but still cast the bill as "good news for America's traveling public." FAA officials could not predict when staffing, and therefore service, would return to normal.

"But ultimately," Carney added, the bill "fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless across-the-board cuts."

So why did so many Democrats end up voting for bill? And how did cuts to the FAA inspire action from legislators in Washington when cuts to other agencies and programs, from Meals on Wheels to Head Start, have gone on unaddressed?

To some observers, it's all about the impact this particular agency has on the lives of lawmakers.

An Atlantic headline put it this way: "Politicians Will Only Roll Back Parts of the Sequester That Hurt Them, Naturally."

"Unlike previous sequester effects which mostly hurt the already economically, socially, or geographically marginalized in American society, these cuts were going to get serious, because they were hitting Northeast Corridor elites where it hurt: on the DCA-LGA shuttle," the article said, referring to delays at New York and Washington airports "frequented by politicians and the national media."

A Salon piece made the same point, arguing that the people who fly between Washington and New York are "people Congress listens to" and "people Congress is."

NBC News' First Read team echoed the point, boiling the lesson down to this: "Congress will act, but only if it and its friends are hurt or simply inconvenienced. That's a devastating indictment on how Washington works."

Others pointed out that airline delays were the most visible effect yet of the across-the-board spending cuts triggered last month after Congress failed to strike a deal on reducing the country's deficit.

On Sunday the FAA began furloughing all 47,000 of its employees, including 15,000 controllers who would have to stay home one extra day per week to save the administration salary money.

While the first day of furloughs appeared to go relatively smoothly, their effects were soon felt and seen in airports around the country. The agency attributed more than 850 flight delays Wednesday to staffing reductions and warned that if unaddressed the upcoming travel season could present big challenges to travelers.

The airlines too campaigned aggressively against the FAA cuts, encouraging passengers to voice their opposition to the agency's "unnecessary and reckless action."

An airline trade group, Airlines for America, filed a motion with the U.S. Appellate Court for the District of Columbia last week to stop the furloughs, citing safety concerns. Meanwhile, other business and travel groups argued that this furlough in particular could harm the economy, at a time when the country's just beginning to feel all the other sequester effects.

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