In a surprise appearance at Friday’s White House briefing, Transportation secretary Ray LaHood warned that the $600 million in cuts expected to hit the Federal Aviation Administration on March 1 would result in the closing of hundreds of air traffic control towers, the furloughing of thousands of FAA employees and flight delays of as much as 90 minutes at peak hours.
“We think the rollout will take from March 1 to April 1 and they’ll begin to see the activity and the layoffs and the delays probably beginning around April 1. ... This is a big deal,” LaHood said.
He added: “Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do. If we can’t get our hamburger within five minutes, if we can’t get on the plane within 30, 40, 50 minutes after going through, you know what happens — they start calling their member of Congress.”
The millions of dollars of cuts to the FAA are among those anticipated to take effect when the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” take effect next Friday. Those cuts were put into motion by the August 2011 debt ceiling deal, and while both parties have been calling for action to avert them, there have been few signs of progress during the past week’s congressional recess.
LaHood, who served seven terms as a GOP House member from Illinois before joining President Obama’s Cabinet in 2009, also had some sharp criticism of members of his own party.
“I think Republicans need to step up here. ... This requires compromise,” he said. “This requires Republicans stepping forward with some ideas about how to keep essential services of government running.”
LaHood also offered some practical advice to GOP members of Congress: "Go and see ‘Lincoln,’ ” he advised, adding that congressional negotiators should learn from Honest Abe, who “gathered people around him” to negotiate and solve tough problems.
Even as LaHood painted a dire picture of the consequences of sequestration, a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released Thursday shows that most Americans have heard little to nothing about the expected cuts. Only 27 percent of those surveyed said they had heard “a lot” about them. Public opinion about the impact of the expected cuts also remains divided.