Airport Fight Shows Who Washington Works For

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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Last night the Senate passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to move money between accounts so it can stop furloughing air-traffic controllers. The House is expected to pass it today, and President Barack Obama will have little political option but to sign it. The ongoing mess of flight delays is about to end.

This episode shows whose problems Washington takes seriously. The FAA debacle is bad for the whole economy, but it particularly hurts people who fly a lot, who tend to be affluent. Members of Congress themselves also happen to fly a lot. As a result, we've gone from problem onset to legislative solution in about five days.

Meanwhile sequestration is forcing an 11 percent reduction in benefits to approximately 1.8 million long-term unemployed Americans. It has also led state and local housing agencies to stop issuing Section 8 housing vouchers to families on waiting lists. Congress has not rushed to fix those problems.

The FAA fix has been sold as an effort to ensure that sequestration does not interfere with "essential" government services. When lawmakers say "essential," they apparently mean "essential to people like me."

This outcome should alarm Democrats. Republicans don't like to talk too loudly about it, but the core of their long-term fiscal plan is to sharply reduce programs that aid the poor. Last year's House budget proposal cut $800 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, on top of a repeal of the Medicaid expansion and the rest of the Affordable Care Act, and it cut a further $800 billion from income security programs such as food stamps.

Republicans have been unable to enact their agenda through the regular budget process. But sequestration offers an alternative path: break the government, then see who has the clout to get the programs they care about fixed. Republicans wanted budget cuts focused on programs for the poor; with the FAA fix, the affluent are off the hook, and sequestration achieves that goal.

There's little difference between the Republican strategies on sequestration and on implementation of the Affordable Care Act: Make a mess, then point and say "See? We told you this would be a mess." They will agree to help clean up the mess only to the extent it serves constituencies they care about.

The FAA fight is a done deal. But Obama must be careful not to allow a series of piecemeal fixes that concentrate sequestration's effects solely on the poor. In coming months, as sequestration continues to unfold, defense contractors and military communities will be coming to Washington seeking relief. That lobby also may be powerful, but the Obama administration must tie a solution for them to one that helps the poor and the unemployed.

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