FAA Budget Cuts: Go for the Paper Clips
If you're a student of the First Amendment—especially the part about redress of grievances—aviation gave you a great week. If you're a frustrated deficit hawk—that's my tribe—it was further cause for despair and yet another lesson in how we the people contribute mightily to tying the government into one hopelessly tangled knot.
Specifically, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airlines for America and the Regional Airline Association sued the FAA to prevent it from beginning to furlough controllers this week as a budget cutting measure. Recall that the week prior, the bipartisan Protect Our Skies Act seeks to stop the FAA from closing 149 contract control towers, again, in part, to save the $637 million the FAA must cut from its budget under the Budget Control Act of 2011, otherwise known as sequestration.
The lawsuit claims that the petitioning groups would be irreparably harmed by the controller furloughs and that the cuts aren't necessary anyway. Lending support to the claim that the FAA is just trying to cause the public pain in order to extract more money from the national wallet, Sen. Tom Coburn said the agency could make smarter cuts, including reduced spending on consultants, supplies and travel—the paper clip strategy. Coburn said the FAA could save even larger sums by trimming the airport improvement program. He failed to mention, however, that pork-seeking legislators in 2011 made the Airport Grant-in-Aid program exempt from budget cutting, effectively making it aviation's version of entitlements. Coburn, at least, voted against the Budget Control Act.
Let's break this down. No one really knows how disruptive the controller furloughs will be, but they will be disruptive to some degree. While there may be some room for fat trimming in the workforce, cutting the typical Center or TRACON shift by 20 percent isn't the way to go about it and, as Coburn rightly points out, there must surely be better ways to trim fat. It's thus easy to see why the lawsuit has merit even if it's not possible to know if a court will see it that way.
Implicit in the lawsuit's pleading and Coburn's argument is that budget cutting can be done intelligently and with finesse to spread cuts around evenly. But, perversely, Congress and the administration specifically designed the Budget Control Act to be the nuclear option, with cuts so draconian that they would never be enacted, thus forcing Congress to the table to enact responsible budget reform. Never happened and even though agencies like the FAA don't need encouragement to engage in meat cleaver budgeting, that's exactly what the Budget Control Act did and continues to do. Thus, redress comes via the courts.
Coming full circle back to the tower closures, it's not all the fault of Congress. Our advocacy groups—with AOPA as the leading example—argued forcefully that none of the 149 should be closed and with the whiff of pork in the breeze, the bi-partisan Protect Our Skies Act seeks to keep the lights on in all of them. (It should really be called the Government-Funded Full Employment Act.) Here, AOPA had an opportunity to engage in the special interest version of Coburn's smart budgeting that we could all cheer, but instead, it saw the issue as a fund raising opportunity to sustain what looks ever more like a hedge fund operation. I've gotten two fund raising letters from AOPA in as many months, one claiming the tower closures were the biggest threat GA has ever faced. Please.
Based on our surveys and e-mail, I'm confident that the sentiment among pilots and owners is overwhelmingly that some of these towers should be closed and many shouldn't have been opened in the first place. Just as assuredly, some shouldn't be closed, either. But to determine which is which requires responsible governance and management and meaningful representation from our advocacy groups.
Both are sadly lacking.
LATE A.M. MONDAY UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. Adding this from the Tampa Airport, where my flight to Atlanta has been delayed 45 minutes due, says Delta, to "effects of the ongoing budget sequestration." So the pain begins.