Obama Administration Is Right to Hold Fliers Hostage

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post's editorial pages are on the case of the Federal Aviation Administration's apparent mishandling of the budget sequestration. Why hasn't the FAA been more flexible about how it cuts its budget? Why did it decide to uniformly furlough 10 percent of air-traffic controllers, even at the country's busiest air-traffic centers, causing travel delays all around the country?

The Journal and the Post both have good points about how this could be handled better. The FAA's protest that it must not "pick winners and losers" among its own facilities by prioritizing the busiest ones is lame; that's exactly what an agency is supposed to do when it cuts its budget. The Post is right to note that equal across-the-board furloughs put the interests of the air-traffic controllers' union above those of the public. And though the Obama administration disputes that it has the direct legal authority to avoid the delays, it could surely have a standalone legislative fix for air-traffic control, along the lines the Post proposes, if it wanted one.

That said, the administration is actually right to resist a standalone fix for air-traffic control. Implicitly, it is holding fliers hostage and saying it won't repeat a common mistake of the last five years -- enacting economic policies that respond to elite problems while ignoring ones that mostly affect the poor.

At the same time the sequestration is delaying fliers, it's also causing state and local agencies to stop issuing Section 8 housing subsidy vouchers to families on waiting lists. That's a crisis too, just not one that affects the sort of people who sit on newspaper editorial boards.

The issue is not that elites shouldn't have their problems addressed. The Troubled Asset Relief Program became law because elites were freaked out about a collapse of the banking system, but the crisis that TARP averted would have been terrible for people at all points on the economic spectrum. A fix for air-traffic control wouldn't just make frequent travelers' lives less annoying, it would also reduce damage to the economy and improve job growth.

But if 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.

Unlike during the financial collapse, our country can afford a few weeks of airport dysfunction. It's time for elites to be told they can't have a fix to their problems unless the poor get one, too. That's what the Obama administration is saying by failing to fix the air-traffic control problem, even if the administration won't say it out loud.

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