Lots of stories out about how the impending budget sequester will lead to delays in travel mostly as a result of furloughs to air traffic controllers.
In a letter to trade groups, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta outlined these steps that DOT will take to save $600 million from March 1, the date the sequestration would take effect, to Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year:
– “Furlough the vast majority of the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees” by about one day per pay period.
– “Eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country.”
– “Close over 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.” That would be 427 flights or 27 commercial flights a day.
– “Reduce preventive maintenance and equipment provisions and support for all NAS equipment.” (NAS = National Airspace System.)
Back in September I wrote that we didn’t need to worry about the sequester as travelers, that there wouldn’t be major air traffic disruptions. Instead, the FAA would defer capital investments in NextGen air traffic control.
It’s the logical thing to do, and I figured they would make the best decisions for their mission.
The alternative is to make good on the threat to furlough air traffic controllers, to make the point that the sequester is “Really. Really. Bad” and that it “affects real people.” They’re making cuts part of the parade of horribles, which doesn’t mean it’s the actual decision that must be made, to do layoffs rather than defer capital investment.
That the FAA has detailed its plans to airline lobbyists only underscored for me that the threat of furloughs and other travel-related scary delays was political posturing.
But I do wonder if in making specific claims about what they will cut, they lock themselves into those plans and find themselves forced to carry them out.
Update: Let me make my assumptions clearer here. Many of the comments on this post purporting to disagree with me are simply offering a different set of assumptions rather than confronting mine directly. I assume that’s my fault for not being clear enough about my suppositions. I am not simply ignoring the sequester mechanism of proportional cuts across an agency’s appropriation. Rather I’m contending that the mechanism carries less force than assumed.
- My argument is that agencies have greater discretion than is assumed as far as what to cut. It’s far less of an exercise of executive authority relative to Budget Control Act (as amended) language than is regularly exercised by recent Administrations.
- That agencies could use discretion to best carry out their missions without significant challenge, or at least without Court intervention. And that plausible arguments about what projects are a part of which ‘bucket’ could be made for legal purposes. That’s just the formalism. An agency that chose to borrow from its capital budget, or reclassify expenses to draw down that budget, would survive scrutiny. The Treasury has taken ‘extraordinary measures’ to avoid the debt ceiling…
- In fact, what appears to be strict language in the Budget Control Act about the way cuts need to apply equally across the board isn’t that strict at all. As the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog explains,
What room there is comes from defining exactly what is meant by “programs,” “projects” and “activities.” “There is not a standard definition,” Stan Collender, a longtime Congressional budget hand currently at the PR firm Qorvis, explains. “It’s not something that exists anywhere else in nature.”
..accounts aren’t programs, projects or activities, and OMB still hasn’t laid out what programs, projects and activities are subject to the sequester… Which set of definitions you use has major implications for how much flexibility administrators get, and yet Congress has laid out none of them.
Not everyone sees this level of flexibility, but the FAA is choosing not to see it.
- Fundamentally the FAA is choosing to suggest cuts would be made that are highly visible — inconveniencing travelers ensures news coverage, costing money to the airlines and informing the airlines’ lobbyists of this elicits corporate pressure on Congress, and threatening worker furloughs mobilizes government employee unions.
- Threats to visible programs, to elicit public and political support, box the agency into a position where they’re more likely to actually make those cuts. What seems like strategic talk could turn out to have real consequences.
It’s perfectly fair to disagree with these positions. But simply saying an agency must cut proportionally does not answer my argument that such a requirement is not a binding constraint — but that choosing to see it as a binding constraint is a political calculation, with real world consequences.