Editorial: Selective Compassion; Congress Protects Air Traffic Control

Signe cartoon

Signe cartoon SIGN28e Sequester

Congress proved at least two things last week: First, even in these days of bitter division it is still sometimes capable of bipartisanship; and second, it is utterly shameless.

We refer to the fact that both the House and the Senate summoned overwhelming support for a bill to reverse the effects of across-the-board spending cuts on the nation’s air traffic control system.

The spending cuts had resulted in furloughs for air traffic controllers beginning April 21 and caused widespread delays at airports around the country. By the end of the week, Congress had seen enough and moved quickly to shift as much as $253 million from other Transportation Department programs to the Federal Aviation Administration so no further furloughs were necessary. As soon as this was accomplished, members of Congress decamped for the airport, amid much self-congratulation, to begin a nine-day break. As The New York Times reported, a House of Representatives that has cleared precious little legislation this year “made swift work of the air travel bill minutes before flying out themselves ... a pile of cars stacked up behind the Capitol waiting to ferry them to Washington’s airports.”

It cannot be that congressmen and -women did not realize just how bad it looked to move with alacrity to alleviate a problem that primarily affected affluent travelers — not incidentally including themselves, given how frequently they visit their home districts — and then to rush out of town without addressing the other ill effects of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. The whole enterprise had the distinct odor of a 1 percent solution.

This was not lost on Vermont’s sole congressman, at least. “We’re leaving the homeless behind,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. “We’re leaving a lot of National Guard folks behind. We’re leaving seniors who depend on Meals on Wheels in the dust. Children who rely on Head Start can teach themselves to read. That’s basically what’s happening.”

Indeed, the whole idea of the sequester was to make the prospect of across-the-board cuts so painful that the president and Congress would agree on a long-term budget deal. When that didn’t happen by March 1, the cuts went into effect.

Thus food safety inspections are being curtailed, benefits for the long-term unemployed are shrinking, children are being forced out of early-education programs and on and on and on. The difference is that the effects of these cuts are largely invisible to those not directly affected, while the air traffic jams were visible to all. For instance, according to the Times, the pilot on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Washington announced that the 90-minute delay passengers had experienced resulted from the “ineptitude” of Congress.

When spring break concludes and members return to Washington, they can expect to find a long line of government programs queued up to secure sequester exceptions like the one made for the air traffic control system. It will be interesting to see if pleas on behalf of the poor receive a similarly urgent response. We’re not betting on it.