Politicians in Washington swapped accusations this week as anticipated mandatory spending cuts began to have their first noticeable impact on the nation’s air travel, with hundreds of flights delayed after airport personnel were forced to take unpaid days off.
In a sign of the increasing difficulty of solving problems in a deeply divided Washington, Republican members of Congress blamed the Obama administration, which blamed lawmakers right back, meaning that the public may be stuck with flight delays indefinitely.
Republican lawmakers have spent the week criticizing the Federal Aviation Administration for not cutting more of its non-payroll budget before it began furloughing thousands of air traffic controllers Sunday.
The Department of Transportation “has hundreds of millions of dollars in other accounts” that could be shifted to fund the FAA, said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who led a House of Representatives hearing Wednesday on the FAA’s 2014 budget request.
But FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the House spending subcommittee on transportation that Congress hadn’t given the agency that kind of flexibility when it passed the mandatory spending cuts in 2011.
“Until something is enacted, we have to live with the law as it’s currently passed,” Huerta said.
The White House disputes Republican suggestions that the FAA or any other agency has the flexibility to simply move money around.
"The law was written in a way that prevents the kind of actions that could mitigate it that some outside observers and lawmakers suggest are available," spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "Congress has to act."
Lawmakers also accused the FAA of holding back on its sequester plans until right before the cuts took effect.
“How come you didn’t tell us beforehand?” asked Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, who said the cuts surprised lawmakers and the public “read it in the newspaper.”
“Mr. Chairman, we’ve been talking about this since February,” Huerta replied.
The trouble goes back more than a year and a half, to the failure of Congress and the Obama administration to agree to a long-term deal to reduce federal budget deficits. Compromise legislation, which lawmakers approved and President Barack Obama signed, included the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
Faced with a $637 million shortfall through Sept. 30, the FAA decided to furlough 47,000 workers for two days a month, including 13,000 air traffic controllers. It also proposed closing 149 contract control towers at mostly smaller airports, but those cuts have been postponed amid an outcry from lawmakers.
The FAA said Wednesday that 1,025 sequester-related flight delays had been reported Tuesday, in addition to 975 weather-related delays. It noted “staffing challenges” at several air-traffic-control facilities, including ones in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tampa, Fla., and expected delays at Chicago O’Hare, Las Vegas and Tampa.
“Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues,” the agency said in a statement.
Huerta said the FAA had cut back on travel, training and information technology, but “we simply could not get to the number we needed to get to without looking at salaries.”
“These are all bad choices,” he said. “I’ll be the first to admit that.”
Lawmakers want to fix the problem; they just can’t agree on how to do it.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., proposed solving the FAA problem by replacing the entire sequester with money from the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which would have been used for winding down the war in Afghanistan.
“We can stop the flight delays and the pink slips,” Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “But Democrats can’t do it without Republicans’ help.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Wednesday called Reid’s plan “the height of fiscal irresponsibility” because it relies on borrowed money. He also accused Reid of “ditching the president” on Obama’s preferred sequester solution, which involves closing tax loopholes. However, McConnell and other Republicans oppose that approach, too.
On a slightly more bipartisan note, Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from closing any air-traffic control towers this fiscal year or next.
“There is no need for this. The department has the authority to make the decisions necessary to prioritize,” Moran said, echoing many of his Republican colleagues who charge that the Obama administration has chosen to inflict pain on air travelers.
Democrats reminded Republicans that they’d voted for sequestration, too.
“They want to pretend they didn’t vote for this, but they did,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “We are all to blame for this.”