House votes to fix airport delays caused by sequester cuts
The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved and sent to the president legislation intended to end a week of turmoil at several of the nation’s major airports, where the sequestration furlough of air traffic controllers caused long delays for thousands of passengers.
The vote came 16 hours after the bill won unanimous support in the Senate, and the White House said the president would sign it.
“Ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester’s mindless, across-the-board cuts,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The daily furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers to achieve $200 million in sequestration savings from the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget became a test of wills between Congress and the administration.
Republicans said the president abruptly announced the details of the furlough plan last week to create a high-profile, television-friendly display of sequestration’s impact. They contended that the FAA had other options to save the total of $637 million mandated by sequestration.
“The FAA and this administration has handled this sequestration poorly,” Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican, said during the House debate. “The administration has played shameful politics.”
The FAA denied it had that flexibility, and the administration argued that Congress should end the larger sequestration issue.
“Flight delays are just the tip of the iceberg on sequestration,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, ticking off a list of less-visible impacts on schoolchildren, seniors and the disabled.
At the White House, Carney echoed that response.
“We hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals on Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due to defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester by acting on a balanced deficit-reduction plan like the one the president has proposed,” Carney said.
The bill sent to the White House would allow the FAA to move funds from airport improvement to end the furloughs. The move to circumvent sequestrations strictures in this case gave rise to the question of whether Congress will seek to dictate how it should be imposed on other federal agencies.
“Get rid of sequester,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said during the House debate. “We’ve got to save the traveling public, but I ask on behalf of 5,000 children in Texas who will lose Head Start and on behalf of our seniors.”
Congress heads home for a week after finishing yesterday’s business, and for most, that means a trip to the airport.
“Members of Congress need flights home,” Carney said at a noon briefing.
The FAA was unable to say as the House voted when the furloughed controllers might return to their jobs.
Friday is one of the two busiest travel days of the week, and all three of New York’s major airports were reporting furlough-related delays yesterday morning. Problems at those airports often ripple through the system.
Federal officials had predicted that the controller furloughs, intended to save $200 million this fiscal year, would result in as many as 6,700 flight delays each business day. Through Thursday, the number of flights arriving or departing behind schedule averaged about 2,800, with many of them attributed to weather problems in key hub airports.
A senior FAA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak for the agency, said the airport delays were not as widespread as anticipated because some facilities managed staffing shortages better than others.
“Upper management has been careful to make the guidance obtuse,” the official said. “At the lower levels, some of the managers are not so sophisticated, so they translate it more bluntly and that is where you are getting the reports that the FAA is staging a management-sanctioned slowdown.”