April 26, 2013
House Joins Senate in Passing Bill to Ease Flight Delays
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — The House gave quick and overwhelming approval Friday to legislation to give the secretary of transportation enough financial flexibility to bring the nation’s air traffic control system back up to full strength and end the mounting flight delays that had become a political headache for Congress. The vote came despite objections from some lawmakers that the nation’s air travel was being given special treatment.
The 361-to-41 vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate reached accord on the measure, which effectively undoes one of the thorniest results of “sequestration,” $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1. That is remarkable speed for an issue that has been brewing for more than a year, with ample warning of the consequences.
Once signed, the law, which passed the Senate without objection Thursday night, will allow as much as $253 million to be moved from other parts of the Transportation Department to the Federal Aviation Administration. Advocates said that should be enough to stop further furloughs and keep the air traffic control system operating at a normal pace through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
The White House said President Obama would sign the bill but condemned the piecemeal approach to alleviating the impact of the sequestration budget cuts. “This is a Band-Aid solution,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “It does not solve the bigger problem.”
House Republicans claimed victory, saying they had proved the worst impacts of the across-the-board cuts could be mitigated — if not erased — simply by forcing the Obama administration to use its powers to shift money and cut wisely. They continued to charge that the White House intentionally inflicted pain on the nation’s air travelers to score points and force a tax increase.
“We’re here because of a colossal failure of leadership and the inability to manage resources,” said Representative John L. Mica of Florida, long a leading Republican voice on transportation policy.
“The term ‘sequestration’ has become synonymous with fear,” said Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina.
But Democrats fumed that Congress had effectively come to the rescue of an affluent and elite slice of the public affected by the cuts, including lawmakers themselves, while leaving the poor to continue to fend for themselves
“We’re leaving the homeless behind,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. “We’re leaving a lot of National Guard folks behind. We’re leaving seniors who depend on Meals On Wheels in the dust. Children who rely on Head Start can teach themselves to read. That’s basically what’s happening.”
Republicans — and some Democrats — had been pushing for much of the month for a rescue of the air traffic control system. But lawmakers who wanted a separate budget rescue for the F.A.A. met resistance from some lawmakers who questioned why air travel was being rescued when children were being thrown out of Head Start, food safety inspections were being curtailed and checks to the long-term unemployed were shrinking. With those cuts largely invisible to most Americans, some Democrats argued that mounting delays at airports might be the only pressure point left to force Republicans to negotiate a broader deal to reverse the cuts, with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.
By week’s end, that position had become unsustainable. The agency said that the furloughs of air traffic controllers caused more than 863 delays on Wednesday because of short-staffed radar rooms that handle high-altitude traffic in New York, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Los Angeles and at radar offices handling lower-level traffic around Washington, Dallas, Southern California and at a tower in Detroit. It reported more than 2,132 additional delays because of weather and other factors.
But the number of delays understates the inconveniences caused to passengers at airports, some of which were using public address systems to say the delays were caused by the automatic spending cuts required by the sequester.
The union that represents equipment technicians said Thursday that when part of the instrument landing system failed at Long Island MacArthur Airport, a Southwest Airlines flight had to be diverted to Baltimore this week. Normally such equipment is restored immediately, the union said, but because of furloughs, it was fixed the following day. It listed other disruptions because of delays in fixing broken equipment.
The F.A.A. said Wednesday that there had been 1,025 delays on Tuesday attributable to staff shortages and 975 delays from other causes, including weather. On Monday, the first weekday of sequester-level staffing, the agency said there were 1,200 delays because of short staffing and 1,400 because of weather.
Republicans accused the administration of mismanagement of the cuts, at best, and intentional infliction of pain at worst.
“At some point, we have to admit the best thing is to find another $2 trillion in debt reduction by looking at revenue, closing some loopholes and bringing down the debt with some spending cuts, but not ones like this,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said Thursday.
House action on a broader deal to undo the across-the-board cuts appears remote. House conservatives say much of the impact has been exaggerated by the White House, and they have relished the success of forcing visible spending cuts on a Democratic administration.
“I think it’s the first time we’ve saved money in Washington, D.C.,” said Representative Raúl Labrador, Republican of Idaho. “I think we need to move on from the subject.”
Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting.