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Whack-a-Mole Budgeting

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

SOURCE: AP/David Goldman

A passenger sits in the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, April 26, 2013.

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The preposterous legislative sideshow taking place around sequestration gives a pretty clear picture of how little the people who were elected to run the government actually know about it.

Exactly four days after long-anticipated sequester furloughs began for air-traffic controllers, Congress decided the furloughs were not such a good idea after all. It also decided that perhaps it wasn’t a problem caused by an administrator trying to showboat the evils of across-the-board cuts but in fact a problem with the legislation that the members of Congress had crafted themselves—legislation directing that across-the-board cuts be taken from each program project and activity within the $7.5 billion appropriated for air-traffic operations.

The legislation that the House passed overwhelmingly today would take funds from the Airport Improvement Fund—an account that Congress had previously exempted from any across-the-board cuts altogether—and redistribute it elsewhere within the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, thus ending the four-day-old crisis.

On one level, the traveling public should be pleased that this absurd, self-created crisis has been defused. But why did it happen in the first place, and why does Congress fail to address so many of the looming crises that will soon confront the citizens it represents?

The comments made by various participants in the FAA drama over the past few days are enlightening. A number of Republican lawmakers argued that there was no need to furlough any of the 15,000 FAA controllers because the agency has 47,000 total employees. The whole furlough problem could be solved by simply by increasing layoffs in the noncontroller workforce.

Ironically, the people offering this solution just months earlier were attempting to alleviate the defense sequestration cuts by larger cuts in nondefense programs. Now they seem to recognize for the first time that there are nondefense activities of the government that actually do matter to people. But what were these 32,000 noncontrollers at the FAA doing? What would happen if we increased their furlough days in order to eliminate furlough days for the controllers?

It turns out that about 15,000 of those employees install, maintain, and service the equipment used by air-traffic controllers and airline pilots. How much equipment are we talking about here? The FAA has radar, radio relays, transmitters, and other electronic equipment operating at more than 64,000 locations across the United States. Failure to maintain that equipment could be as catastrophic to the safe and orderly functioning of our air-transportation system as the understaffing of control towers.

How about the rest of the employees? Well, there are another 7,500 who work in what is called “Aviation Safety.” Some of these people inspect and certify aircrafts and aircraft equipment before it can be put into service by the airlines. Others monitor airplane maintenance by the airlines and certify the training programs and procedures of the airlines in ensuring proper maintenance of the planes that carry the traveling public hundreds of millions of air miles each day.

The fact that all of the uproar over the FAA furloughs was centered on the controllers and not those who ensure proper aircraft maintenance is a measure of how the current congressional decision-making process is nothing more than a series of knee-jerk reactions to whatever problems happen to make it onto the evening news. And those problems may very well be less of a real threat to our safety and well-being than others that we have not heard about.

The game that Congress is now playing is to impose serious cutbacks across thousands of programs, projects, and activities of the government and then figure out which to restore based on press reports and public outrage.

What will be the next item that Congress will have to fix to deflect the public’s wrath? Maybe it will be the growing lines that airline passengers will face to get through airport security due to the hiring freeze and inability of the Transportation Security Administration to pay for the overtime necessary to surge their workforce at peak travel times. Perhaps it will be a salmonella outbreak in certain fruits or vegetables because Congress responded to the meat industry’s demand to prevent furloughs at the Department of Agriculture but would not do the same for the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for all other food products. Maybe an early season hurricane will expose the degradation of the U.S. Weather Service’s data-collection capabilities.

Maybe the press will turn their attention to the fact that more than 70 percent of the staff at military hospitals are civilians and subject to furlough. It is obvious that all of those hospitals are at serious risk of not meeting minimal standards for cleanliness, safety, and quality of care. Perhaps an unexpected slowdown in construction starts will be linked to the growing backlog of unapproved multifamily mortgage applications at the Federal Housing Administration. Maybe we will have an early start to the wildfire season in the western United States, and the hazard posed by the lack of training and preparation already occurring in federal firefighting efforts will be linked to the possible unnecessary loss of millions of acres of forestland and dozens of communities caught in the path of wildfires. Perhaps the furlough of epidemiologists and other health professionals at the Centers for Disease Control will become a topic of public concern with the spread of a new generation of viruses or other infectious diseases.

The one thing you can be sure of, however, is that Congress is not examining these problems in advance and looking at issues across the government in a way that will allow them to be anticipated and resolved before they begin to create enough pain and inconvenience. But with a work schedule that requires them to be in Washington only a few full days a month, how could it?

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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