On Friday, Congress voted to end the furloughs of hundreds of Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers. The bipartisan vote, which now moves to President Obama’s desk, is the first step toward ending air travel delays that have been plaguing the nation for the past week. The bill would take effect tomorrow if signed Friday as expected.
Observers find it convenient that a Congress scarcely able to agree on anything, let alone budgetary issues, should spring catlike into action ensure their own smooth travels in the days before a week-long recess. Why else would a do-nothing Congress should use the lawmaking process to settle a political spat? The administration has claimed that budget cuts ordered by the sequester have required the FAA to save the money partly out of air traffic payroll, and that the Transportation Department does not have enough flexibility with its finances to redirect money from other accounts. Republicans have countered that they do have that flexibility, but faced with the prospect of waiting in their private terminal lounges for any longer, decided to just pass a law ensuring the flexibility and be done with it.
The vote sidesteps President Obama’s recent punitive kick. For the past fifteen months, Americans have watched the sequester morph from worst case scenario into law as Congress has grown steadily more comfortable with its own ineptitude. There have been calls to avoid the pains of sequestration, but the White House has been adamant that the 2.4% reduction in the federal spending be felt as widely as possible, concerned that the cuts would be borne by the poor and unnoticed by elites.
That fear has been validated somewhat by the timing of today’s vote. Though the past week has seen 6,000 flights delayed, Congress’s heroic decisiveness on the issue comes the day before many lawmakers are planning on boarding planes. The bill does not substantively address the sequester, only patches one of the effects that is very unpopular to the relatively wealthy flying class.
There are many good reasons for Congress to pass this bill. U.S. air travel is, of course, of vital economic importance, and as anyone who’s wasted hours inching toward a runway knows, few things arouse populist passions as just that. But these things were true on Tuesday, and they were even true a year ago, when sequestration seemed like an idle threat. There also happen to be many good reasons to pass other bills that don’t affect how fast Lindsey Graham’s ass is in his La-Z-Boy. Whether you see this as a reason why air traffic control should be privatized or you want a tarmac built from JFK to LaGuardia to accommodate the backup until Head Start regains its funding; let’s put together a condescending applause for Congress for doing something. Eventually.