CHN: Fear of Flying; Congress Fixes Waits in Airports but Lets the Poor Wait One More Year for Housing Vouchers

People don’t like to wait on long lines at airports.  With news cameras panning the lines and Twitter campaigns launched, Congress hurriedly passed legislation to move funds around within the Federal Aviation Administration to end furloughs of air traffic controllers.  The Senate passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 (S. 853) with no objection and no recorded vote on Thursday, April 25, and decamped to airports for a week-long recess.  The House voted for its version of the bill (H.R. 1765) on Friday and also left for recess.  People on the brink of homelessness seeking housing vouchers, children losing weeks of Head Start (or being denied it altogether), seniors losing home-delivered meals, and the long-term jobless seeing cuts in their unemployment benefits did not see similar fast action.  (For weekly summaries of the impact of these and other cuts, click here.)

The furloughs of air traffic controllers were the result of sequestration, the across-the-board automatic cuts triggered when Congress was unable to agree on a more sensible plan for deficit reduction.  The sequester was meant to be a thoroughly unappealing means of cutting about $1.2 trillion through FY 2021, with cuts equally assigned to the Pentagon and to domestic programs.  Initially set to kick in on January 1, 2013, Congress replaced the first two months of these cuts in hopes of a last ditch effort to come up with an alternative.  Enough Republicans decided they could tolerate the military cuts, so no deal, and sequestration took effect at the beginning of March.  (For background on sequestration, see Senseless Cuts Begin in the March 4, 2013 Human Needs Report.)

The President and Congressional Democrats continued to call for a comprehensive replacement of the sequestration cuts. Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) offered legislation in the week before recess to stop the FY 2013 cuts, paying for them with savings from ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  But a bipartisan group of Senators abandoned the call for a comprehensive solution to carve out the airport fix.  The bill passed in the Senate was sponsored by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), with 15 co-sponsors including six Democrats (Begich-AK, McCaskill-MO, Nelson-FL, Rockefeller-WV, Udall-CO, and Warner-VA).  Similar legislation had been previously co-sponsored Senators Klobuchar (D-MN) and Hoeven (R-ND).  The Administration caved too:  spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the President would “be open to looking at” separate legislation to allow the FAA to move money around to end the furloughs.

In passing legislation that let the FAA spend less on infrastructure improvements and shift those funds to pay the air traffic controllers, Congress was coming closer to the approach of a number of Republican-sponsored bills.  S. 799, co-sponsored by Senators Inhofe (R-OK) and Toomey (R-PA) would give the Obama Administration until May 15 to come up with alternative cuts for all of sequestration, but would not reduce the total amount to be cut.  The White House and Senate Democrats have strongly opposed this approach, saying that it is impossible to cut $85 billion in this fiscal year without doing harm, and sparing some programs will only result in even more unacceptably deep cuts in others.  The FAA could choose to put off building projects, even though that hurts jobs now and will constrain economic growth in the future.  Most other programs do not have funds to invest in infrastructure, so this choice is not even an option.

In a minor footnote to Congress’ haste to adopt this legislation, a typo made it necessary for the bill to be taken up one more time for form’s sake in the Senate.  This occurred on April 30, and the bill is now on its way to the President’s desk.

While the President will sign this legislation, he has continued to point out the harm of allowing cuts to proceed for vulnerable children seeking Head Start and other programs that affect the health and life chances of hundreds of thousands of people.  But every time a powerful interest is able to carve out its own fix, the chance of getting agreement on ending sequestration is diminished.

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