A Playbook for Undoing the Sequester

Congress' reversal of FAA furloughs set off a special interests race to push for other exemptions.

Who would have guessed that the air-traffic controllers and meat inspectors would be the first ones lucky enough to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration?

So it went on Friday, when Congress passed legislation to give the Federal Aviation Administration special flexibility in implementing its sequester cuts. The bill exempted air-traffic controllers from furloughs, which had caused flight delays at major airport hubs throughout the Northeast for the past five days. Meat inspectors also received a carve-out in late March following a powerful lobbying push and under the guise of ensuring food safety.

Now, with a few sequester tweaks on the books, other special-interest groups, unions, and lobbyists are planning to rev up their efforts to undo the cuts bit by bit or, in this case, by a few billion dollars here or there. The actions of the FAA over the past week, alongside airline groups and unions, offer a playbook for others to use as they too seek exemptions.

“What you’re seeing now is an unraveling of the sequester. This is predictable as the sun rising in the east, and it will happen piece by piece over the next 60 to 90 days,” says Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff director for the Senate Budget Committee.

Already, interest groups are plotting new ways to cast their particular sequester cuts as dire or unfair or safety hazards since they see an opening to escape the full force of the legislation. Remember the hollering a few weeks ago about cancer patients being turned away from treatment or clinical trials? Well, the American Cancer Society Action Network plans to ramp up its pressure on lawmakers following the FAA legislation. The group has an energized grassroots organization; a lobbying team in Washington; and lots of face time with lawmakers. After all, if air-traffic controllers can get a pass, then the cancer advocacy group thinks patients should too.

“We’re no longer just talking about why we need this additional funding. We’re talking about people who are dying because of what politicians are unable to do,” says Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Action Network, the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society. The message, he adds, “is going to get more edgy.”

It took a mere six days for the FAA to push Congress to change its language on the agency’s sequester cuts. The furloughs of air-traffic controllers began April 21. Each ensuing day, the agency released a press release and tweeted about the number of flights delayed due to sequestration and the resulting reduced staffing at airports.

On Wednesday alone, 863 flights were delayed at major hubs in New York, Washington, Cleveland, Dallas, and Jacksonville, Fla. On average, New Yorkers’ flights were delayed by one hour, while delays at the Los Angeles airport spanned into two hours, says Mark Duell, vice president of operations at FlightAware.com, an industry tracking group. The airlines also threatened to undo their rule to not keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours.

Forget that an additional 2,132 flights were delayed on Wednesday, due to weather or other typical airline mishaps. This week, for instance, New York suffered from high winds, and Florida experienced thunderstorms, Duell says.

When the flights were delayed, the message from the airlines was clear: This is all the fault of the sequester. Pilots and flight attendants in their announcements attributed problems to the government cuts, says airline industry analysts. This riled up consumers and made them aware of the sequester cuts in a way they may not have experienced them before. (In mid-March, a majority of Americans had yet to see evidence of the sequester in their lives, says Gallup pollsters).

Then came the lobbying muscle to fight the FAA cuts. That’s the thing about the airline industry—it has lots of manpower. The airline pilots have a union, as do the air-traffic controllers. Major airlines have an industry group alongside the regional airlines. Even companies involved in shipping, transportation, air express, and postal delivery got involved.

It was all-out blitz, from the cable-news shots of angry passengers delayed at major airports and missing connecting flights to websites set up by the industry to decry the issue. “Don’t Ground America” was the slogan of one industry advocacy site. “The FAA’s unnecessary and reckless action will disrupt air travel for millions of Americans, cost jobs, and threatens to ground the U.S. economy to halt,” says the site.

This combination of angry consumers and a powerful industry—combined with a lack of opposition—forced Congress to vote to give the FAA more room to maneuver with its sequester cuts. In the weeks to come, the question is: Will this prove as a successful template for other industries or a one-off lucky break for the FAA on the sequester?

The Internal Revenue Service recently announced its plans to furlough its employees. The group representing them, the National Treasury Employees Union, wants those furloughs scaled back. “Congress just voted to make it more likely that their flights home for another vacation today will not be delayed, but they should be staying here to find a way to stop the sequester and prevent the loss of services the American people rely on,” said NTEU President Colleen Kelley in a statement. 

In the coming weeks, the cuts least likely to receive much attention are those that affect the poor or the unemployed. Already, workers who’ve been out of job for six months or more have seen  federal unemployment checks cut by about 11 percent cuts due to the sequester.

“It pains and saddens me that there is no outcry to undo the sequester cuts for them,” says Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator with the National Employment Law Project. “The political reality is that members of the House are not willing to do that.”