The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How is Congress dealing with the sequester? Randomly.

In a rare moment of bipartisan efficiency, Congress has voted to give the Federal Aviation Administration the funding flexibility to un-furlough air traffic controllers.

All it took was a few days of flight delays to undo part of the sequester. And it exemplifies the way Congress has responded to the $1.2 trillion across-the-board-spending cuts: randomly, and almost entirely for reasons of publicity rather than policy.

After The Post's Wonkblog reported that cancer clinics were turning away Medicare patients because of sequester cuts, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) introduced legislation to reverse those cuts. While that bill has 50 co-sponsors, it has not gotten a vote. Meanwhile cuts affecting public defenders, the unemployed, homeless, food for low-income seniors and mothers, Superfund cleanup, foreclosure prevention and of course government employees at large have received scarce attention from Congress to date.

"Cancer patients who are relying on these funds and being harmed by these cuts are not receiving, it seems, as much of a priority" as the FAA, said Ellmers spokesman Thomas Doheny. "There are definitely concerns about that."

Since the sequester went into affect on March 1, the White House has insisted on replacing the entire sequester and has tried to use unpopular cuts to ratchet up the public pressure for a deal. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has proposed delaying the cuts with war funds, an idea Republicans have deemed unserious.) When Republicans caused a ruckus over the cancellation of White House tours, Obama didn't cave. But the Administration has not been immune to sequester randomness. Obama signed a spending bill that gave the Department of Agriculture almost all the cash lost in the cuts -- thanks to savvy lobbying from Secretary Tom Vilsack and the meat industry.

And Obama will sign the FAA bill, spokesman Jay Carney said Friday, while lamenting that the "Band-Aid solution ... does not solve the bigger problem."

In doing so, the president is bowing to popular opinion -- and acknowledging that even unpopular cuts are not going to force a resolution on the sequester any time soon. Instead, Washington will keep lurching forward, dealing with budget cuts based on buzz rather than bottom lines.