The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration suspended all employee furloughs and said air traffic control facilities returned to regular staffing levels by Sunday evening after Congress passed legislation Friday giving the agency flexibility to meet a mandatory budget cut in the face of public frustration with airport delays and flight cancellations.
Immediately upon providing relief for the airline industry, Democrats and Republicans took turns accusing each other for causing nearly a week of disruption to flight schedules.
The $85 billion in automatic budgets cuts through the end of the fiscal year were never intended to be implemented because they are so draconian, but Republican lawmakers and the White House could not agree on an alternative package of savings and revenue increases by the March 1 deadline. The FAA's portion of the austerity measure is $637 million, which the Obama administration said could not solely be met by steps such as a hiring freeze and limiting travel expenses. On April 21, the FAA began implementing furloughs for its 15,000 air traffic controllers and spacing out aircraft arrivals and departures to maintain safety with fewer staff in control towers and radar stations.
The legislation gives the FAA leeway to move money from a non-essential grant program for airport improvements to cover personnel costs for the air traffic controllers, eliminating the need to put them on unpaid leave one day per pay period. Congress recently passed similar legislation to restore Agriculture Department meat inspectors to full-time work.
In his weekly radio address, President Obama called the FAA fix a "Band-Aid" that fails to address cuts in services throughout the government. He reiterated that his proposal carefully trims government spending and raises money by closing tax loopholes.
Restoring FAA service "does nothing for the 70,000 children who will be forced off of Head Start, or for the millions of Americans who will have to wait longer for new prescription drugs to reach the market, or for the 600,000 women, infants, and children who will be left hungry after being dropped from the supplemental nutrition program. Only by repealing the sequester outright can we avoid these severe budget cuts and prevent their crippling effects on vital public services," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement.
He argued the deficit has declined 15 percent during the current fiscal year to $775 billion, from the original $900 billion estimate, because of the growing economy. "With these savings, alone, we could cancel the sequester without increasing the deficit by a penny," Nadler said.
Last week, Senate Democrats proposed using savings from the military drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan to help pay for some of the $85 billion in sequester cuts.
But Republicans said Obama played politics with the FAA budget by unnecessarily sticking with FAA furloughs to cause pain in a highly visible area of public life in hopes that a public outcry would lead to a budget deal.
In the Republican response to Obama's address, Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, repeated that the administration had existing authority to exact savings from other parts of the FAA budget or implement furloughs at less busy airports, but claimed its hands were tied.
Some political analysts say Obama has lost leverage in the budget fight because he had insisted on a grand bargain that dealt with the entire scope of taxes and spending cuts at one time and deal with the entire $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, but has now gone along twice to funnel money to specific programs where the sequester cuts were becoming noticeable to the public without increasing tax revenue. - Eric Kulisch