Now Is the Sequester of Our Discontent

Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:46pm

The House convenes Tuesday for the first time since the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects ended and immigration hearings began, so those issues would be expected to dominate the afternoon glut of “one minutes” from those eager to be heard on the stories of the day.

Instead, it’s a good bet many lawmakers will have something else they want to talk about: the sequester, a topic that was put to rest exactly four weeks ago.

That was when President Barack Obama signed legislation dictating agency budget levels for the rest of fiscal 2013, which locked down those highly controversial and relatively indiscriminatory reductions in discretionary spending until the end of September. Faced with no alternative to a government shutdown, the measure won the grudging votes of 73 senators and 318 House members, and they’ve spent the past month with fingers crossed that the public won’t feel pained by the pinch.

But then came Monday, the first weekday of sequester-motivated furloughs for air traffic controllers. Hundreds of thousands of travelers were delayed by as much as three hours, mainly because of understaffing at major hubs and regional control towers. About 1,500 controllers were ordered to take the day off without pay, requiring wider spacing of planes getting ready to land or take off.

All 15,000 controllers have been told to get ready for 11 such furlough days this spring and summer, a staffing cut of about 10 percent. It’s still only enough to save $200 million, less than one-third of the $637 million the Federal Aviation Administration needs to excise by the fall.

The delays were impossible for many members of Congress to ignore, of course,  because those returning from weekends in their home states were part of the annoyed hordes slowed on their returns to D.C.-area  airports. And, because of furloughs at the Transportation Security Administration, many members also began their trips with extra-long lines at security checkpoints.

So some of the angriest rhetoric out of Washington will come from a particularly volatile sort of politician, one whose schedule has been disrupted and creature comforts rattled by inconveniences they’ll want to blame on others but know they’ve had a hand in creating.

And all the agita about air traffic controllers is just the latest in a lengthening roster of ripped-from-the-headlines bipartisan lawmaker concerns that might be titled, “Sequestration and Its Discontents.”

The Democrats who dominate the delegation representing the Washington area are fretting that the cuts are so deep that security will be inadequate during the summer tourist crush, especially during such marathon-like events as the Memorial Day concert on the Capitol lawn and the July Fourth fireworks extravaganza on the Mall.

Members from both parties are using heightened anxiety about terrorist threats to assert that the federal investigative net will become more dangerously frayed if the cuts clip the FBI, the CIA or other law enforcement agencies.

Many Republicans are focused on effects on cancer patients: subjects in clinical trials put on hold and Medicare beneficiaries turned away from clinics because chemotherapy treatment costs have gone up.

And, by now, almost every member has bellyached that high school constituents have been denied a White House tour.

But none of the genuine or imagined worries or annoyances about the FAA furloughs or any of the other line items will have any tangible effect. That’s because, beyond the bipartisan distaste for the  sequester’s consequences, there is no more agreement than there’s ever been about what to do instead. The depth of the cuts are locked in place through September. Even if the big long shot comes through and a budget deal becomes part of raising the debt ceiling in July, at best the caps starting next year would be eased just enough to take away some of the most politically toxic sting.

Nor will there be any meaningful reconfiguring of the across-the-board nature of the reductions, at least not before the appropriations process is done for next year. The congressional votes aren’t there to pick thousands of programmatic winners and losers under the caps for only a few months.

Scattered Democrats are joining most Republicans in complaining that the Obama administration could lawfully be exercising more flexibility to manage agency budgets to their lower numbers. The president, in their view, is insisting the most painful cuts take place to illustrate what budgetary dysfunction looks like at its worst.

Whether that’s his motive or not, it’s what the public will see. These months are going to be a time for lawmakers to realize one thing: When they endorsed Obama’s suggestion of the sequester two years ago as such a distasteful pill that they’d never swallow it as self-imposed punishment for deficit inaction, they didn’t know themselves very well.