In an inspiring burst of action, congressional committees grilled the heads of federal agencies in charge of Head Start, Meals on Wheels, housing assistance and Medicare, and demanded answers: “Why haven’t you informed us that the automatic sequester cuts we voted for are forcing poor kids out of preschool, starving the elderly, creating more homeless families and denying treatment to cancer patients? One Congressman fulminated, “This was a surprise to the Congress, to the world!”
And so, in a last-minute, bipartisan deal Thursday night, senators voted unanimously for a “fix,” and the House approved it today. While the fix won’t alleviate all the sequester’s damage, it will mend the worst holes in the safety net. These Congress members simply weren’t going to fly home for the weekend without doing their best to assure that not one more child go hungry or one more family homeless.
Okay, that didn’t happen—at least not for poor, homeless, and sick people. But the Senate did scramble late Thursday to unanimously pass a resolution to end the FAA furloughs that were causing air traffic delays. “Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key architect of the bill, was cheered by the last-minute agreement struck after most senators fled town on Thursday ahead of a weeklong recess,” Politico writes. “ ’It’s nice to know that when we work together we really can solve problems,’ Collins said on the floor after the bill passed.”
Now, the airport delays, caused largely by furloughing air controllers, are no small matter—the sequester delayed 863 flights on Wednesday alone—and the pain goes far beyond the airline industry and inconvenienced passengers. According to one estimate, prolonged furloughs could have cost billions in lost economic output and tax revenue, and threaten tens of thousands of jobs (effects that, as usual, hit the poor first and worst).
But Congress’s targeted fix—achieved by moving funds from one part of the FAA budget to another—allows lawmakers to ignore the vastly more severe damage to the economy, jobs and people’s lives that they created by voting for the mindless, austerity-driven sequestration in the first place.
Most of the sequester’s devastation goes unseen by the public, because, unlike the brave Beltwayers who can save airports at a moment’s notice, the sequester’s victims are not power players. See, for starters, these two Nation pieces: “A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration’s Cuts,” and “How Sequestration Hurts the Homeless” with “up to 140,000 fewer low-income families receiving housing vouchers, more children exposed to lead paint, higher rent for people who can’t afford it and a rise in homelessness.” Then add in the estimated 70,000 low-income children who are getting kicked out of Head Start, the 4 million fewer meals delivered to homebound seniors via Meals on Wheels, and the massive cuts to Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) and other food assistance programs.
The FAA fix not only doesn’t help these people, it will hurt them more. As Josh Barro wrote, “[I]f we enact a standalone fix for the FAA, pressure on Congress to pass a broader sequester fix will wane, and issues like the Section 8 backlog will remain. It will be a small repeat of the 2008 crisis, where the rich got the financial system stabilization they needed, and the crisis of long-term unemployment was allowed to continue.”
Barro and others urged Obama to wield leverage by “holding fliers hostage,” and at first Obama seemed willing. He supported Harry Reid’s proposal to pay for the $85 billion in sequester cuts (through September) with savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Republicans were able to block such a sensible plan (in large part because Reid decided not to go for real filibuster reform) and instead screamed about the thin slice of the sequester, the furloughs, that most directly affects their own class.
The White House protested—Jay Carney says the FAA fix is a temporary “Band-Aid” that wouldn’t help children, seniors, or “the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester.” And Democratic senators complained about injustice and piecemeal solutions. “I doubt the most disadvantaged citizens are flying on commercial aircraft,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who called the measure “sequester budget Whack-A-Mole.”
But the Dems caved. The House approved the bill today, 361 to 41, and Obama will sigh but sign it.
“All it took was a few thousand people standing in line at the airport,” Politico writes.
That, and media coverage that hyped airline cuts and largely ignored the rest. A Huffington Post search found that “the top three major cable news outlets have discussed FAA furloughs and flight delays 46 times so far in the month of April,” thirty-one of those since April 22, when the furloughs began. In the same period “cuts to Head Start received 19 mentions, Medicare patients getting turned away from cancer clinics received 21 mentions and reductions to the Meals on Wheels program received just seven.”
Then there was some well-timed demagoguery from Republicans, particularly from Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He complained to FAA administrator Michael Huerta at a Wednesday hearing that the furloughs kicked in too suddenly. (Video here.)
You didn’t forewarn us this was coming. You didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it…. This imperial attitude on the part of this administration—and you’re the most recent example of that imperialism—is disgusting. And then to turn around and try to blame the difficulties in flying on the Congress, having not informed us of what you planned to do, is unacceptable…. All of this is a surprise to the committee, to the subcommittee, the Congress, to the World.
Huerta countered, “Mr. Chairman, we’ve been talking about this since February.”
And indeed, they have. But until this week, Republicans didn’t want hear about it. From February 28:
House Republicans remain skeptical that the sequester poses a major threat to air travel, even after Huerta appeared in person to lay out the reasons the Obama administration says it can’t blunt the impact of the cuts. Sam Graves [R-MO] may have best summed up GOP frustration with the administration’s days of alarms that the automatic cuts will mean canceled flights, long security lines and dozens of control tower shutdowns.…. “The sky isn’t falling,” Graves said.
On Wednesday, when Rogers insisted the sky was falling, Huerta reminded him that the FAA had warned airlines and airports “months ago” to expect 10 percent reductions in controller hours and that “they should expect significant impacts at major hub facilities.”
“Well la-tee-da, everyone knew that,” Rogers said. “That’s what sequester is all about.”
Yes, that—and much worse—is what sequester’s about. At least for most people.
The mainstream media doesn’t know what to do with the Boston bombing suspects, who don’t fit neatly into any stereotype, Leslie Savan writes.