Over at Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler is torn up over the willingness of the Senate to pass a waiver to sequestration rules for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Late last night it took a break from its regular schedule of lacking 60 votes to shampoo the chamber carpet and unanimously passed a bill that will provide the FAA unique flexibility under sequestration — and thus halt the furloughs that have been causing travel delays around the country. Today the House will follow suit, and the White House has made it clear President Obama intends to sign it. Great if you fly. Bad, bad news if you're on head start or rely on meals on wheels or otherwise aren't a Priority Pass holder.
Aside the obvious iniquity, this is a big error.
The point of sequestration is supposedly to create just enough chaos that regular people — people with political clout, such as, say, business travelers — demand that Congress fix it. Or as the Democrats conceived it, to create the public pressure they need to knock Republicans off their absolutist position on taxes.
Having apparently missed out on the decades-old deregulation of airline-ticket pricing, Beutler implicitly equates the mundane act of flying with, I don't know, wearing monocles, lighting cigars with $100 bills, and other excresences of capitalism only available to the super-rich. This, despite the fact that over 80 percent of Americans have flown.
The original point of sequestration, or automatic, across-the-board cuts urged by Barack Obama, was to provide a spur to force Congress to come up with a specific (yet tiny) level of spending cuts that were agreed to as part of a barely remembered debt-limit deal. When that didn't happen—despite plenty of time and delays—the result is that around 1 percent to 2 percent of total federal spending is being trimmed in fiscal 2013. But don't worry: The feds are on track to spend more this year than last year even when you factor in sequestration. And for all the fretting over minor spending trims that are routinely described as barbaric and brutal and unconscionable, the long list of programs exempted from sequestration ensures that nobody is going to go hungry or naked due to cuts amounting to around $44 billion in this fiscal year. Sadly, that statement is also true for the Department of Defense and its contractors, who are taking the single-biggest hit but still doing quite fine.
So it turns out that the FAA has enough money in its cut-to-the-bone budget to keep planes flying as if nothing happened—all it has to do is shift dollars from a useless activity to one that actually has an impact. The ease with which the FAA apparently can do that underscores the real fear of sequestration opponents: People will realize that a federal budget of around $3.6 trillion—or roughly double the amount that was spent in nominal dollars the last year Bill Clinton was in office (and 50 percent more in constant 2012 dollars)—is plenty big enough to cover all core government functions even if you think the government should do just about everything.
And in case you're wondering, air traffic control is not a core government function. Back in 2009, Reason's Bob Poole explained how the FAA is using ridiculously outmoded technology to direct flights, even as Canada has fully demonstrated that spinning off that function to the airlines is better and more efficient. Indeed, "commercializing" air traffic control even has the support of characters such as Al Gore: