If you ran a business this way…
It isn’t quite Ronald Reagan breaking the 1981 air-traffic controllers strike by firing 12,345 of them, banning them from government employment for life, and decertifying their union. But it’s close enough for cheering. On Thursday night the Senate unanimously reversed the Federal Aviation Administration’s sequester furloughs, and the House followed on Friday with a veto-proof majority, 361 to 41.
Remember when the sequester’s spending cuts were going to incite mass uprisings for higher taxes? Instead, Senate Democrats and the White House blinked, not least because the FAA’s transparent political strategy was to use incompetent government as a bludgeon on behalf of bigger government. The American public waiting in departure lounges figured this out, which is presumably why the political capitulation is so total.
The FAA’s all-hands furloughs managed to convert a less than 4% FAA budget cut into a 10% air-traffic control cut that would delay 40% of flights. The 6,700 flights that the FAA threatened to force off schedule every day is twice as many delays as the single worst travel day of 2012. [Yes, this is how Obama thinks.]
The Democratic surrender has non-elected liberals in full revolt, claiming Washington somehow bowed to wealthy business travellers—as if the 99% don’t save for vacations and two million people aren’t in the air every day. Their advice is that the White House should have let the delays mount until Congress also agreed to turn off the entire sequester for low-income housing grants, Meals on Wheels and everything else.
Let us hope for the sake of the poor that other bureaucracies are managing the modest sequester cuts more responsibly than the FAA. But the larger point is that from the beginning the FAA’s delays were deliberate and avoidable. The FAA has ample legal discretion to protect core services but chose instead to maximize disruption. It is a sign of the FAA’s institutional culture of failure that it can’t even sabotage itself successfully.
The Senate bill clarifies that the FAA has the authority to cut waste and nonessential items before it lays off controllers—which the White House falsely claimed the sequester law prohibited it from doing. The six-page bill also specifically identifies $253 million in discretionary unspent airport grants that can be used for air control instead. That’s among the $34 billion in so-called “unobligated funds” that the Department of Transportation has on hand this year despite sequestration.
Prior to its bipartisan humiliation, the FAA tried to promote the illusion that it was doing a good job until the sequester came along. While we’re glad passengers will now endure fewer pointless delays, the FAA will be dysfunctional no matter how much money it gets and deserves to be punished for its recklessness with a more Reaganesque solution.
To wit, Congress ought to abolish the FAA and privatize the air navigation system the way that Canada and other developed countries have. A nonprofit corporation funded by user fees would make better cost-benefit decisions, tap capital markets, replace old-fashioned technology in a timely way and discipline high labor costs.
In addition to NavCanada, Germany, France, Australia and more than 50 others have made the transition to commercial airspaces. No less than Al Gore tried do this when he was Vice President, only to be routed by the unions. Republicans should try again as a plank of a platform to reform and modernize a government that serves itself before it serves America.
President Obama’s latest sequestration gambit backfired for the same reason his previous attempts this year have flopped. The sequester cuts, while often dumb, aren’t hollowing out the basic services that voters expect from their government. They are showing instead that government can safely and sensibly be cut if politicians are willing to set priorities and make choices.
A version of this article appeared April 27, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Flight Delay Rebuke.