Americans have repeatedly learned from the mainstream media that some of their favorite services are threatened by the sequester, even though the agencies making the cuts have leeway in where, when and what is cut. Early on, we learned that White House tours were canceled. Then we learned that border security would face furloughs, and that thousands of illegal aliens were released from federal detention centers, including a substantial number with criminal records. Now U.S. citizens are experiencing delayed flights across the country as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughs each of its employees one day every other week. “The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty,” reports the Associated Press.
“We know that the FAA has the flexibility to reduce costs elsewhere, such as contracts, travel, supplies, and consultants, or to apply furloughs in a manner that better protects the most critical air traffic control facilities,” asserted Republican Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA). “Yet rather than take this approach, the Administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the traveling public.”
Shuster is not alone in this assertion. In fact, some members of the mainstream media—and Washington—have questioned whether the President might be playing political football with these cuts.
“As TV crews panned across anxious and angry passengers in New York terminals, the debate revived in Washington over whether the controller furloughs announced last week were necessary or a White House ploy to dramatize the effects of sequestration,” report Ashley Halsey III and Luz Lazo for The Washington Post. “The Obama administration brushed off suggestions that air travel had become ‘a political football,’ but crowds of delayed passengers undoubtedly made better television than announcements that federal office workers would have to take unpaid days off” (emphasis added).
“For the most part, travelers said they had not experienced big delays,” they report. In other words, the sequester may still end up being a non-story despite the media hype about it. “Information from the FAA and others showed that flying Sunday was largely uneventful, with most flights on time,” reports the AP. But the slowdown is just getting started.
“With the sequester, FAA has some leeway,” Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, told NBC News. “If they yank (controllers) out of 6 or 7 choke-points, they could cause all sorts of heartburn; if they do it in places where it doesn’t matter as much, it could have minimal impact.”
The Wall Street Journal suggested that “President Obama’s sequester scare strategy has been a political flop, but his government keeps trying. The latest gambit is to force airline flight delays until enough travellers stuck on tarmacs browbeat enough Republicans to raise taxes again.”
So how hard the American public feels the effects of the sequester depends on the motivation and aptitude of the agencies as they are making cuts. In other words, agencies do have some leeway in implementation, despite the “meat cleaver” metaphor that has been bandied about.
While some in the media have responsibly questioned whether the FAA cuts are being used for political gain, others seem, to varying degrees, to swallow whole the idea that the cuts are “necessary” because of the sequester. “The furloughs, or temporary unpaid employee leaves, are the result of the nearly $1 trillion in automatic, arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts—known as the sequester—that began in March of this year,” reports MSBNC’s Emma Margolin. “$637 million of those cuts have to come from the FAA’s budget, forcing the administration to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days between now and the end of the fiscal year.”
“Brace yourselves.” This, despite the fact that no significant changes to flights have been detected as of this writing. Margolin’s article appeared under the title “Sequester: Let the FAA furlough (and the misery) begin.” The embedded video indicated that Florida flights were seeing delays despite the fact that these delays were at least partially due to Florida storms.
The FAA furlough is “one of several such moves that federal agencies are making in response to the automatic spending cuts of ‘budget sequestration,’ which went into effect because Congress and the President couldn’t agree on an alternative way of reducing the deficit,” asserts Jonathan Cohn for the New Republic. “If so, those fliers would merely be confronting a reality that’s already setting in elsewhere—a reality in which the government does less, and provides less, than it did before the cuts took effect.”
According to the Associated Press, “Flight delays piled up all across America on Monday as thousands of air traffic controllers were forced to take an unpaid day off because of federal budget cuts, providing the most visible impact yet of Congress and the White House's failure to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan” (emphasis added).
But, perhaps the Obama Administration is using the cuts for political gain, cutting where it hurts most—most publicly, that is. After all, back in February, the Administration issued a veto threat against the Toomey-Inhofe bill, which would have given the Administration more leeway in making sequester cuts. This would have been a chance to make the sequester cuts more palatable. “This bill is an effort to shift the focus away from the need for the Congress to work toward a bipartisan compromise that would avoid sequestration,” responded the Administration, according to this February Washington Post article.
In other words, the Obama Administration says it wants the sequester to go away, not to work better for the American public. Ezra Klein, writing for the Post, went so far as to explicitly outline this fact: “The bottom line is that Republican bill makes the sequester easier to live with, and the White House doesn’t want the sequester to be easier to live with,” he writes.
“Obama’s announcement is a repeat of a traditional ‘gold watch’ budget tactic, in which the president identifies high-profile and painful cuts to maximize his political leverage,” wrote Neil Munro, White House Correspondent, back in February for the Daily Caller. “Previous presidents, for example, have threatened to shut down the national parks in summer and close the Washington Monument in D.C.,” he wrote. In fact, Obama has withheld funding cuts from those programs he aligns with politically, according to Munro. “The exempt programs include green-energy spending, funding for Planned Parenthood, enforcement of environmental regulations, funding for Obamacare and billions in foreign aid,” he writes.
Included in that billions of federal aid is $250 million in “economic assistance” to Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. “Egypt is trying to meet conditions to close on a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund,” reported the Associated Press. “An agreement would unlock more of the $1 billion in U.S. assistance promised by President Barack Obama last year and set to begin flowing with [John] Kerry’s announcement.”
This is the same Egypt whose leader, Morsi, called Jews “blood-suckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs,” and who supports the Iranian backed terrorist group Hamas.
Yet at the same time, Obama accuses Republicans of “partisan recklessness” and asks, “Are Republicans in Congress really willing to let these cuts fall on our kids’ schools and mental health care...to slash military health care and the Border Patrol...to inflict more pain on the middle class?” he asks, adding that “the American people have worked too hard for too long to see everything they’ve built undone by partisan recklessness in Washington.”
What other fun programs has the Obama Administration decided not to cut? Consider, for example, the $75 million dollars for the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP)—part of which benefits Planned Parenthood—to discuss sexual topics with kids, or the ongoing funding of puppets and puppet research by the Administration. In addition, the Obama Administration has a NASA grant to study what cooking might be like on Mars. Perhaps some of these less newsworthy programs deserve their share of the cuts, as well.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out that on Monday of this week, as the Obama flight-delay strategy unnecessarily went into effect, “the top story on the Department of Transportation’s website announced a $474 million grant program that promises to ‘make communities more livable and sustainable.’” The website also announced that “DOT launches Women in Transportation History online exhibit.”
While most of the network coverage has toed the Obama line, CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson—last year’s winner of Accuracy in Media’s Reed Irvine Award for investigative journalism for her work on the Obama administration scandal, Operation Fast & Furious—cited critics of the Administration, and mentioned $3 billion in airport improvement funds that, so far, hasn’t been touched by the budget cuts.
This ploy definitely has the potential to damage the Obama Administration, if enough people recognize the cynical game they are playing with the air-travelling public in their effort to get Republicans to cave on increasing taxes as part of some grand bargain. But they are counting on their friends in the media to cover for them, and to keep the heat on the GOP. And that’s probably a safe bet.
Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.