Editorial Board

Help Frequent Fliers -- and the Poor, Too

You may have noticed that those weeks of tedious Washington debate about “sequestration” are finally having an effect: The Federal Aviation Administration is furloughing its air-traffic controllers, causing delays at some of the nation’s busiest airports.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A Bloomberg Government analysis of the FAA’s staffing shows that the agency has more than enough air-traffic controllers to operate without flight delays -- provided the furloughs are restricted to airports that are overstaffed. (The agency would need the cooperation of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, but given the public pressure, their opposition hardly seems viable.) Instead, the FAA is applying furloughs equally across all airports.

Similarly, proposals in the Senate would effectively end the furloughs. Any such fix would be preferable to intentional government dysfunction that unnecessarily inconveniences passengers -- at least 863 flights were delayed yesterday alone as a result of the impasse.

Here’s the problem. Although the dispute is clearly resolvable, it’s also highly visible -- it disproportionately affects the affluent and the influential. So it effectively highlights the pervasive harm created by sequestration. That’s why, as we resolve the FAA’s furloughs, we should also address the less visible problems that sequestration has unwisely enshrined in law.

Foolish, Destructive

Sequestration is, by design, a terrible idea. It was a solution to the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown: When a congressional supercommittee failed to hammer out a long-term budget deal, automatic and illogical across-the-board spending cuts were initiated. These cuts were initially deemed so foolish and destructive that they would scare Congress into reaching a better deal. Congress failed.

The effects of that failure are, as intended, pretty bad. Along with other deficit-reduction measures Congress has put in place, sequestration could reduce gross domestic product by 1.5 percentage points this year. It could cost about 750,000 jobs, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate. It will probably cut housing vouchers for about 140,000 low-income families by 2014, increase rents for many others and reduce assistance to the homeless. It may threaten funding for a highly successful nutrition program for poor women and children. It includes ham-handed cuts to the Pentagon, unemployment benefits, education, research and development, and on and on.

We don’t oppose cutting spending or making the government more efficient. We oppose cuts that are unnecessarily harmful. The Obama administration has proposed a comprehensive alternative to sequestration. It has also supported a gimmicky but feasible proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which would temporarily replace the cuts using savings from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have proposed their own more sensible deficit reductions that would obviate the sequestration cuts entirely.

So there is no shortage of alternatives.

We understand the political logic behind the disruptive FAA furloughs. And we understand that resolving this dispute will help the affluent and hurried while budget cuts that hurt the poor and marginal will stay on the books. But a government that is intentionally dysfunctional serves its people poorly and undermines its legitimacy. So by all means, get the air-traffic controllers back on the job at full strength. Just don’t let that be the end of the story.