Are the furloughs of air traffic controllers, leading to flight delays across the country this week, political? Probably. The administration might be able to find other ways to save the Federal Aviation Administration's share of the across-the-board cuts — all of which are the consequence of Congress and the president not reaching a long-term budget agreement. Officials could, for example, shift the brunt of the furloughs away from the nation's busiest air corridors in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
But don't forget the point of these cuts, also known as sequestration. Congress and the president agreed that the only way to force all sides to come together and reach a budget agreement was to put in place cuts that would be so unpopular politicians would do everything possible to avoid them.
That ploy didn't work. The March 1 deadline came and went with no serious movement toward an agreement. For politicians now to complain that politics is causing flight delays misses the point entirely. The answer is for Republicans and Democrats to come together and finally hammer out an agreement that cuts government spending even more than sequestration, but that does so in an intelligent way. They need to reform Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security while they're doing this, and they also need major tax reform and simplification, doing away with loopholes and lowering overall marginal rates.
Unfortunately, Washington is showing little sign of moving in such a direction. Instead, each side seems to be spending its energy trying to make the public blame the other side for any inconveniences.
In reality, the amount of cutting involved in sequestration is a small percentage of government expenditures. The reduction amounts to 2.4 percent less growth over the next 10 years, with only about $44 billion being cut during the current fiscal year, nearly all of that coming from projected growth rates, not from actual baseline budgets. It's as if your boss told you your raise would be not quite as large as you had counted on this year. You still, however, would get a raise.
The cuts to the FAA amount to $637 million; a tiny amount compared with the overall federal budget. But it is doubtful any negotiated budget agreement would have cut the FAA at all. The real target ought to be runaway spending on entitlement programs. Most sequestration cuts have taken place without much public concern. This just happens to be one that hits Americans in a particular activity — air travel — that is largely frustrating and inconvenient to begin with.
And the traffic control furloughs are only the beginning. In June, the FAA plans to close control towers entirely at 149 of the nation's smaller airports, most of which contract with private companies for their controllers. Provo and Ogden are on that list. Both airports provide limited commercial flights, and Provo's airport is home to a prominent flight school.
The control tower closers have been held up by a court challenge, just as pilots and regional airlines have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to get courts to stop the furloughs.
This shouldn't be a matter for the courts to decide. This is a problem that belongs to the legislative and executive branches of government. As they seem preoccupied with casting blame on each other, don't expect any relief soon.