By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
The Pecksniffs of America had nothing but scorn for Congress’ vote last week to stop furloughs of air traffic controllers, which were ostensibly mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Congress failed to act to stop cuts to Head Start and Meals On Wheels, critics sneered, but did stop the Federal Aviation Administration cuts largely because they hit lawmakers where they live—on the planes that fly them to and from their home districts.
Nonsense. Congress did what it was supposed to do. Capitol Hill responded to the flying public’s righteous anger. There was a fear factor: If a plane crashed, voters would blame Washington.
Republicans found unused money in the transportation budget. So after Democrats protested and the White House promised to veto any sequester modifications, they fell in line behind an FAA fix; it passed with bipartisan support and was punctuated with a presidential signature.
“Congress is capable of doing that everywhere if the lawmakers really want to,” budget fellow Patrick Knudsen of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation opined.
It turns out that the Obama White House had miscalculated. It had become increasingly clear that the White House was using the FAA cuts to gin up voter outrage against the sequester cuts. And that wasn’t going to fly.
Republicans took care of their constituents—businesspeople.
The real question is: Why haven’t Democrats done the same thing if they believe that cuts to Head Start and Meals On Wheels are equally untenable?
Instead, Democrats have supported what, to them, are excruciating cuts because they find the notion of trimming 2.5 percent from a $3.8 trillion budget to be unthinkable. It’s their Rubicon. They’d rather cut muscle than fat—that is, they’d rather cut welfare programs than find pork to cut in a still-growing federal budget pot.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, tells me that unlike transportation, welfare budgets are so tight that there’s no fat left to trim. He adds that some Republicans have issues with a Senate bill that would cede the authority to make cuts to the president. But that’s not the Democrats’ problem.
Liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein thinks Democrats should bend. The Dems tried to kill the sequestration by making its cuts stupid and across-the-board. But the sequestration still lives. If sequestration is permanent, Klein wrote, “they might as well make it a bit less painful.”
Budget guru Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center used to think that Washington would cave on the sequestration by June because the cuts would be too painful. The former Hill staffer now thinks that won’t happen. Except for the FAA cuts, there is little public protest, not even from the defense sector or the welfare lobby.
Bell told me, “I’m not sure there’s much else that has the immediate impact on people’s daily lives as air travel.”
And what does that tell you?