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The Sequester Comes to an Airport Near You

What happens when Republicans are stuck on the tarmac?

Phil Walter/Getty Images News

If you’re reading this item while you’re stuck at the airport, don’t start cursing your airline just yet. The real culprit may be the sequester.

On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration began putting into effect a furlough program—that is, forcing some employees to take extra days away from work, without pay. It’s one of several such moves that federal agencies are making in response to the automatic spending cuts of “budget sequestration,” which went into effect because Congress and the President couldn’t agree on an alternative way of reducing the deficit. Although those cuts officially started taking place a month ago, federal agencies could not begin furloughing employees without giving thirty days of notice. Now those thirty days have passed and the furloughs are beginning. The FAA has said that it won’t risk safety problems: If it has fewer controllers to track planes, then it’s going to reduce the number of planes in the air. It may be happening already. Sequester-related “staffing problems” appear to be the reason fliers in Southern California and the Northeast Corridor have suddenly started experiencing longer-than-usual delays, according to the Associated Press

If so, those fliers would merely be confronting a reality that’s already setting in elsewhere—a reality in which the government does less, and provides less, than it did before the cuts took effect. All over the country, Head Start programs are ending the year early.1 National parks are reducing hours and tours and, in some cases, closing visitor sites altogether. Programs that deliver free food to the disabled and the elderly are serving fewer meals—or fewer people. Unemployment checks are getting smaller and housing vouchers are suddenly harder to come by. Some agencies are withstanding the cuts better than others, either because their leaders planned better or simply because there was more waste to cut. (Yes, even an unreconstructed liberal like myself thinks some federal agencies are inefficient.) But many of these cuts are genuinely devastating, particularly since they can have a dual effect. They not only reduce the services and support that some people will receive; they also reduce the incomes of the people paid to administer them. A frustrated veteran air traffic controller at New York’s Kennedy Airport told the Washington Post. “I’m not really looking forward to a 10 percent pay cut.” 

Alas, the political impact of such sentiments is another story. With a few exceptions—Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel of the Huffington Post come quickly to mind—the national media has barely noticed that these cuts are taking place, let alone that they are having a real impact on people’s lives. In polls, respondents say they blame Republicans for the cuts more than they blame the Democrats. But the public hasn’t yet indicated it considers the cuts a big deal. Among the likely reasons: Some of the effects are invisible, or at least very difficult for most voters to perceive. As furloughed workers reduce their spending, to accommodate their lower incomes, the economy will lose some of its strength.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has called it a “slow-motion train wreck” that would deprive the economy of about a million jobs over two years. That prediction is broadly consistent with other forecasts, by such independent experts as Macroeconomic Advisers and the experts at the Congressional Budget Office. And it's not like the recovery is strong enough to absorb such a hit easily. But will voters link slower growth—and fewer jobs—to the sequester? Will they ask why it’s a better alternative than the budgets President Obama and the Democrats have proposed—budgets that would undo the cuts and make up some of the difference through higher taxes on the wealthy? And will lobbyists for affected industries, from medicine to defense, force Congress to pay attention to them? So far, the answer to all three questions has been "no," to the surprise of many (including yours truly). That means the sequester cuts going into effect now, for this fiscal year, are likely to stay in place.

The question now is what happens next—as Congress stops thinking about fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30, and starts thinking about fiscal year 2014.

It’s easy to forget, but the sequester is actually a ten-year plan. This year’s cuts are just the first installment. And while this year’s cuts effectively imposed the pain after Congress was done making spending decisions—in other words, the sequester reduced appropriations Congress had already agreed to authorize—next year’s cuts are going to be part of the debate from the very beginning.2 So far, Congressional Republicans have been able to stand by the cuts, in part by deflecting blame—saying it was the president’s idea and that the administration, if it chose, could come up with less painful ways to reduce the budget. As Jonathan Bernstein observes at the Washington Post,"The Republican strategy on sequestration has been clear for months now: sequestration is terrific because spending cuts are good…and every specific program cut by sequestration is a terrible injustice that Barack Obama should have avoided." 

That argument will be harder to defend as the cuts get bigger, the constituents and lobbyists get louder, and the midterm elections get closer. During an interview on Monday, Steve Bell, who runs the economic policy shop for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he wasn’t sure when—or even if—the pain of sequester cuts would be enough to bring Republicans to the bargaining table. But he offered one reason why the cuts might start to get a lot more attention in Washington. “One of our senior vice presidents just emailed me,” Bell explained. “She was flying off the California and her plane was 45 minutes late taking off from Reagan National. The pilot got on the intercom and said ‘welcome to the sequester.’ ”

  1. Jared Bernstein wrote about some of these on his blog recently.

  2. I'm simplifying a bit here. The actual rules of sequestration are difficult to explain and likely congressional responses to them are difficult to anticipate. At some point soon, I'll write on that question separately. For now, Richard Kogan's guide at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is as good a primer as I've seen.