The air traffic controller furloughs are the White House tours of the sky.
From time immemorial, a government that doesn't want to tighten its fiscal belt finds high-profile ways to inconvenience the public to try to turn it against spending cuts. In keeping with this so-called Washington Monument strategy, the White House canceled tours in the immediate aftermath of sequestration.
In an escalation, the Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed air traffic controllers, causing widespread flight delays.
Somehow, the Obama administration managed to find the federal employees perhaps most essential to the nation's transportation and commerce, and send them home. It found a way to make one of the most aggravating aspects of modern American life, air travel, more aggravating.
In Washington, incompetence can never be entirely discounted, and certainly the FAA did a poor job preparing for sequestration. But the administration and Democrats saw political opportunity in the debacle.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rushed to the Senate floor as the furloughs began to say that, "In airports across the country, millions of Americans will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration." He then plugged for a budgetary gimmick to cancel most of sequestration, so spending can resume as usual. Reid knows the script of the Washington Monument strategy very well.
The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, had to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget. Only 15,000 of the FAA's 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on some days more than 1,000 flights have been delayed.
The furloughs hit all airports equally. As far as the FAA is concerned, the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center, with more than 8,000 takeoffs and landings a day, is the just the same as Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa, with fewer than 80.
The FAA should be able to manage with less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996. The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama's 2013 budget request.
In 1986, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic deficit-reduction law, the model for today's sequestration, went into effect, mandating a cut of more than 4 percent at the FAA. Yet no controllers were furloughed. In past budget showdowns, air traffic controllers have been considered essential employees.
But Huerta claims sequestration gives him no wiggle room. Asked by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky in a recent congressional hearing if he had requested any additional flexibility from Congress, he replied, "No."
The Obama administration is extremely creative in finding the flexibility it needs to implement Obamacare or to ignore the nation's immigration laws. When it comes to avoiding the enormous economic costs of increased delays at airports, though, it is helpless before the strict letter of the law.
Actually, its interpretation of the law is almost certainly wrong. In separate letters to Delta, both Paul Clement and Seth Waxman, former solicitors general in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, respectively, conclude that although limited, "the FAA retains a degree of flexibility" (in the words of the Clement letter).
That the administration didn't exploit that flexibility to the hilt — or failing that, seek more from Congress — is a travesty. The airline industry has been screaming bloody murder about the effect of willy-nilly air traffic controller furloughs for months and sued to try to get a better plan out of the FAA. The head of the Air Line Pilots Association, Lee Moak, believes that "they're using the air system as a political football."
If there were justice in the world, Michael Huerta would be fired and his boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, impeached. Short of that, Congress should act without delay to free air travelers from the grip of the Washington Monument strategy.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and a variety of other publications. Read more reports from Rich Lowry — Click Here Now.