A crush of flight delays at U.S. airports after the furlough of about 10 percent of air-traffic controllers sparked a backlash in the Capitol yesterday, with Republican lawmakers accusing the Obama administration of inventing a crisis to serve its interests in a budget-cut fight.
Democrats responded that Republicans were choosing to ignore the consequences of the “bad policy” they supported that requires the spending reductions.
In the day-long volley of accusations over who’s to blame, Republicans pressed their case that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration could easily have found other ways to cut its budget to comply with automatic spending cuts that began last month.
“I believe this is a manufactured crisis,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FAA, told reporters after a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans yesterday.
The White House said the critics want it both ways: they endorsed the forced budget reductions in a process known as sequestration, yet they want to keep the same level of services.
“We did everything we could to avert the sequester, and unfortunately Republicans decided as a political matter that it was a home run for them to inflict this upon the American people,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
The fight over automatic budget cuts spilled beyond Capitol Hill on the second day of controller furloughs as delays mounted to about two hours at the busiest U.S. airports, including Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia, both serving New York City.
Those two are among the five airports that had flight delays yesterday because of the controller furloughs, according to FlightAware.com, an industry data provider. New York airports also had high winds that caused delays, an FAA website said.
Lawmakers said the administration had other options than reducing staffing levels in a way that inconveniences air travelers. In the most visible example of the automatic budget cuts, an average of about 10 percent of controllers will be furloughed on any given day, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 15,000 FAA-employed controllers.
In the Senate, leaders of both parties weighed in.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, took to the chamber’s floor to accuse the FAA of failing to give the traveling public enough notice of the magnitude of the furloughs, and said the administration can and must shift budgetary resources to allay flight delays.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, tried to advance a proposal that would delay the government-wide budget cuts for five months by tapping “a small part” of about $650 billion in unused war monies. He was blocked by Senate Republicans.
The FAA, subject to a lawsuit filed last week by airlines over the cuts, has its hands tied because Congress refused to yield, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday.
“This has nothing to do about politics,” LaHood said on a conference call with reporters. “This has everything to do with bad policy that Congress has passed. I would say to any member of Congress, ‘Fix it, you’re in session.’”
Congress deserves blame for the situation because lawmakers opposed the FAA’s attempts to close small air-traffic control towers at airports with little traffic, said former FAA Associate Administrator George Donohue, now an engineering professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“What did they think was going to happen?” he said in a phone interview. “It’s appropriate for people to realize that taxes actually pay for services like this.”
Barry Anderson, who oversaw a series of automatic budget cuts in the 1980s and 1990s as an assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, said he is “mystified” at the FAA’s contention that it must furlough employees to comply with the budget cuts.
While across-the-board budget cuts are somewhat rigid in their application, Anderson said he doesn’t think the law establishing this round of reductions would require an agency to use furloughs to comply. When the first such cut occurred in 1986, he said the 4.3 percent reduction to non-defense spending resulted in no furloughs of government workers. That cut was close to the 5 percent reduction now being applied, he said.
“There were no furloughs that I can remember,” Anderson said. “The White House wasn’t closed, and air traffic controllers weren’t put on notice. I don’t understand why all these things are going on now.”
“There’s plenty of other areas within the FAA budget that they could implement short-term cuts,” Brian Campbell, chairman of the Campbell-Hill Aviation Group LLC and a former executive for Midway Airlines Inc., said in a phone interview.
Campbell, whose firm is based in Alexandria, Virginia, suggested that the FAA had alternatives, such as delaying spending on the NextGen air-traffic control upgrade project, cutting research and development and slowing the pace of airline or repair-station certification.
That’s easier said than done, said Robert Poole, transportation director for the Reason Foundation and a critic of how the FAA operates the air-traffic control system.
Given “strict mandates” from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the FAA didn’t have other options for cuts, Poole said in a phone interview.
“They couldn’t substitute other accounts, for example facilities and equipment, which would have been a natural thing to do if it’s short-term cuts,” he said.
Campbell likened the furlough-caused delays to what President Ronald Reagan did in 1981 when he fired 11,000 striking controllers.
“I think what they’re trying to do is create a sense of chaos,” Campbell said.