The lesson from last week's quick and decisive congressional action to alleviate long lines at airports seems to be that the more visible your problem is, the more likely you are to get some sort of relief from the effects of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Quite naturally, some of the less visible victims of these budget cuts are wondering where their exemptions are. Dr. William Nibley of Utah Cancer Specialists was quoted by the Huffington Post on the effects of cuts to the National Institute of Health. He said he and other doctors and patients have been calling members of Congress to explain how the cuts are harming care. "We haven't gotten much of a response," he said. "Then there is a little news about delays and all the sudden there is legislation and debate. ... I would invite anyone in Washington to come look my patients in the eye and tell them that waiting for a flight is a bigger problem than traveling farther and waiting longer for chemotherapy."
Other people with similar questions include advocates for the poor and needy and educators concerned about federal money for school programs. Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has spoken out about how wrong it is to make allowances for the Federal Aviation Administration while doing nothing to stop cuts to the military that he says are "putting our nation's security in danger."
One might worry that helping the FAA would open a flood-gate of exemptions that would undermine sequestration completely. Instead, however, Congress seems unconcerned. They fixed the headline-grabbing problem of the day, but they are no closer to fixing the fiscal impasse that is keeping them from enacting meaningful and long-lasting economic reforms. President Obama touched on this during his press conference Tuesday, but he sounded disingenuous, as he has done little to propose compromise solutions or to spur both sides to action.
A likely reason for that is public apathy. A recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of Americans aren't following the budget battle at all, and only 15 percent are following it closely. Also, Americans are split evenly when it comes to casting blame for the airline delays, meaning neither side succeeded in gaining any political advantage over the FAA issue.
That sort of cynical approach to the problem may help explain why the latest poll numbers compiled by Realclearpolitics.com found only 14.2 percent of Americans giving Congress a favorable approval rating. It's also disheartening to see politicians putting their own fortunes ahead of the nation's needs.
No rational approach to setting the nation's budget trajectory on a sane path would attempt to do so by threatening the air-travel infrastructure or by hurting cancer patients or educational programs. That isn't to say some of those things might need reform or even prudent elimination, but sequestration applies a meat ax that requires no thought or deliberation. The main culprits of runaway government debt are entitlement programs — Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. A main inhibitor of revenue enhancement is a tax code that is Byzantine and riddled with loopholes.
Those are difficult problems that require thoughtful leadership and bipartisanship. Instead, the nation's current fiscal policy appears to be one that reacts to the loudest and most photogenic complaints with an eye toward partisan advantage. Americans should demand better.