How predictable was that? Sequestration starts to pinch — and pinch the middle class — so the restrictions are loosened. Why cure the disease when treating the symptom is so much easier? Why lose weight when you can let out the pants?
Air travel was a nightmare this week. My husband spent hours trapped on the tarmac in New York and Washington. I fared a bit better on a trip to the Midwest.
When the so-called sequester was triggered, the Obama administration was accused of exaggerating its impact. This week wasn’t sky-is-falling rhetoric, it was the-skies-aren’t-moving reality.
So it’s no wonder that Congress responded to the mess by, as The Post put it in a magnificently Latinate phrase, circumventing sequestration. When constituents howl, Washington listens — at least when the constituents are well-connected.
You might point out, and you’d be right, that lawmakers have not been nearly as responsive to other victims of the sequester’s mindlessness: kids who lost Head Start slots, criminal defendants whose public defenders have been furloughed, unemployed workers with benefits curtailed, Indian reservations unable to hire teachers.
Other sequester cuts take a silent, uncertain toll. The Food and Drug Administration will have to cut food inspections by nearly one-fifth, Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told USA Today. If we luck out, we will never know the impact. Officials at the National Institutes of Health warn of budding scientists lured to other careers, or other countries, because of the uncertainty and difficulty of securing federal grants.
The only real division between Republican and Democratic lawmakers concerned which direction to point the finger: whether the air-traffic controller crisis was the unavoidable result of allowing the sequester to take effect (Democrats) or it was manufactured by the administration and Democrats looking to maximize the sequester’s pain (Republicans).
So Washington did what Washington does best: It blinked. The administration, having warned repeatedly about the horrors of the sequester, flinched when those horrors started to enrage the public and scare lawmakers. It agreed to apply, as White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “a Band-Aid.”
The point of the sequester, of course, was for it never to happen. The automatic cuts, or so the theory had it, were so unthinkable that Congress would never permit them to take place. Then the unthinkable became the inevitable. To undo the sequester, or unravel part of it, Congress would have to come up with equivalent “savings.”
In air quotes, because the “savings” it has produced are not — surprise! — savings at all. Part of the “fiscal-cliff” deal involved averting a few months of the sequester, thanks in part to a retirement-tax savings dodge. This neat little trick produced revenue in the short term but will end up costing the Treasury money over time.
Such is Washington’s version of prudence, and because it behooved neither side to blow the whistle, complaints were muted.
For this round, lawmakers — before they, yes, flew home to face angry constituents — gave the Transportation Department added flexibility to shift around funds to avoid furloughing air-traffic controllers. Talk about rearranging the deck chairs.
And if you think the air-traffic furloughs are the last case of special pleading to which lawmakers will respond — or cave — you don’t know Washington.
There are responsible alternatives to mindless cuts or dishonest restorations. They involve, and you’ve heard this before, a balanced blend of spending cuts and increased tax revenue.
Because, as David Wessel usefully noted in the Wall Street Journal, so much of federal spending is conducted through the tax code — through deductions and credits for favored activities — the notion of raising revenue this way ought not to be automatically anathema to Republicans. Except it is, at least so far.
President Obama, in his 2014 budget, offered one such responsible alternative combining increased tax revenues with entitlement reforms. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the dogged deficit duo, have just proposed an updated version of their plan, which would reduce the debt even further than the president’s — to disappointingly little public notice and even less prospect for serious action.
Instead, responsible governing seems forever stuck on the tarmac, waiting for the gridlock to lift.
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