Bashing Congress has been a popular sport since the beginning of the republic. Ohio Republican Rep. Nicholas Longworth described this national pastime in his acceptance speech as speaker in 1925: “I have been a member of the House of Representatives … 20 years. During the whole of that time we have been attacked, denounced, despised, hunted, harried, blamed, looked down upon, excoriated, and flayed. I refuse to take it personally.”
While we all are critical of Congress on occasion, there are times when the body is unfairly criticized and must be defended. That was the case when Congress enacted the Federal Aviation Administration sequester fix to put furloughed air traffic controllers back to work: Congress was excoriated and flayed. It can’t seem to win for winning.
The two popular narratives are: Members were paving the way for their own quick airport getaways on the eve of a recess, and they were acting to please their wealthy business supporters, who are frequent fliers with squeaky wheels.
Editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians had a field day with those storylines. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” got bonus replay mileage for alleging members were only fixing the FAA sequester because it directly affected them: “They don’t care about Meals on Wheels unless it is rolling down the aisle.”
It was good for a laugh but just not true. The FAA did not resume normal operations until two days after Congress left town, and even then the bill wasn’t signed into law until the following Wednesday because of a typographical error that needed correcting. What was really driving members’ actions were all the news stories of people stranded in airports, growing angrier with Congress for its stupid sequester. Hell hath no fury like a vexed voter. The media tends to focus on harried travelers with the most heart-tugging stories. These weren’t business travelers but average families trying to get to graduations and weddings and funerals.
Of course the other part of the critical narrative was that Congress was not fixing the sequester problems for programs serving needy people, such as Meals on Wheels, Head Start and unemployment insurance. That’s a legitimate complaint. At the same time, how realistic was it to expect Congress to enact a grand bargain that same week to offset the sequester? Which tax increases and entitlement cuts were readily available as low-hanging fruit, politically palatable and ripe for plucking to replace the discretionary spending cuts? That was so not happening.
Let’s look at the positive side of what Congress did. First, the bill was introduced in the Senate on April 25 by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins with a bipartisan group of 15 senators. Second, it passed by unanimous consent that same day. Third, the bill language obviously had been worked out in advance with the House, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made specific allowance for later considering a separate House bill having the same language, which is what eventually transpired.
Fourth, the House bill passed the next day under suspension of the rules (requiring a two-thirds vote for passage), with 202 Republicans and 159 Democrats in support and only 41 members opposed. Fifth, the president — who earlier hinted he would not approve a single-shot bill — signed it anyway on May 1 rather than incur the wrath of the flying public.
While the urgency of the situation did not permit the regular order to operate, the simple solution of drawing on uncommitted balances from the airport improvement program to pay the salaries of furloughed air traffic controllers kept the bill simple and sound, all without endangering vital infrastructure (as some erroneously charged it did).
Can you imagine the public uproar and economic dislocation if Congress had not acted before it adjourned?
Congress’ prompt action was a credit to its ability to overcome gridlock and act in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner to address a serious national problem — albeit one of its own making. Shame on those who deride Congress for doing the right thing.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.