Saturday, May 25, 2013

Flying Low

I was writing a long post about the whole air-traffic control brouhaha in Congress, starting with an explanation of the sequester, but I got so bored I couldn't finish it. So here's a pared-down version.

Thanks to Congress,  across-the-board cuts have been made to military and domestic discretionary spending. They call this "sequestration," even though that's not what what "sequestration" normally means. (They make the laws, after all, so when they use a word it means just what they want it to mean.)

These across-the-board cuts are, everyone agrees, a terrible idea. They were conceived as a way to get compromise on reducing the budget deficit. Republicans would agree to getting rid of tax loopholes to avoid draconian defense cuts, and Democrats would agree to some spending cuts to avoid across-the-board cuts -in domestic spending. But Republicans decided they'd rather be soft on defense than soft on taxes. So the across-the-board cuts went into effect. Oops.

It took a while for anything much to happen, but pretty soon cuts started appearing among the people and places that you don't need to pay attention to: the long-term unemployed, public defenders, food pantries... I mean, drug and alcohol treatment for Native Alaskans? Puh-leeze. No one really noticed. Fox News asked, "Did the White House mislead on sequester impact?"

Eventually, though, the cuts did start to affect people who matter.  Furloughs of air traffic controllers started to cause delays at big airports, and there was talk of having to shut down the small airports. Immediately there were moves to exempt this part of the FAA from the sequester, or at least give it more flexibility.

Democrats in Congress knew full well that the best chance to get rid of the domestic cuts was to hold firm and let the sequester affect more influential people.  But in the end, the bill to bring back the furloughed controllers passed Congress with overwhelming support, 90 percent in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. Food pantries? Not so much.

Why did the Democrats cave? One possibility is self-interest: nowadays, many members leave their families in their home districts and fly home every weekend. Another is the wishes of people that Congressmen spend four hours a day talking to: the people who can contribute a significant amount to their campaigns. That group includes more than just the Gulfstream crowd; the business-class crowd and the Cessna crowd are also worth calling. All have a stake in the fate of air-traffic controllers.

What's harder to understand is what happened next: President Obama signed the bill. He doesn't fly home every weekend, has all the air-traffic control he needs, and doesn't need campaign contributions. Why didn't he veto it?

Yes, there was an overwhelming vote for it; it's likely the veto would've been overridden. I suspect the opinion of his staff would have been the conventional Washington wisdom: that having his veto overridden would have made him look weak, and if he looked weak, then he would be weak.

Going beyond that view would require the mindset that Obama's been so painfully dragging himself toward: that Washington politics is about more than his relations with Congress, that President shows leadership by talking to the voters, that voters admire a President who has strong convictions even when they don't fully agree.  Try this, for example:

"I know that this bill passed Congress with huge majorities and that a veto of it is likely to be overridden. Nevertheless, I cannot in good conscience sign it.  I cannot see how I can say that air travelers should not suffer from budget cuts, while the long-term unemployed are facing benefit cuts, homeless people cannot get housing vouchers, and children are turned away from Head Start programs. I have no wish for air travelers to be inconvenienced. But suppose you were one of the Medicare cancer patients who have been told by their clinics that they can no longer afford to treat you. That would be really inconvenient."

I think that works. Best case: he shames a third (plus one) of one house into voting against override. Worst case: He fails to stop the override, but pleases his restless base in the Democratic Party. Either way, he shows that he is not afraid to do the right thing even when it's unpopular.

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