Federal Aviation Administration Furloughs And Flight Delays

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This week, the FAA began furloughing flight controllers due to budget cuts known as sequestration. On Monday, more than 1,200 flights were delayed as a result. Joining me in the studio to look at what furloughs and delays could mean for travelers: Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal, Jim Tankersley from The Washington Post, Patricia Gilbert of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and Scott Lilly from the Center for American Progress.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:36
I do invite you to join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.

MR. STEPHEN MOORE

10:07:56
Good morning, Diane.

MS. PATRICIA GILBERT

10:07:56
Good morning.

MR. JIM TANKERSLEY

10:07:57
Good morning.

REHM

10:07:58
Good morning to all of you and welcome. Trish, let me start with you. After just two days of furloughs, what are we seeing?

GILBERT

10:08:10
We're seeing what, unfortunately, we have and others have predicted might happen if the cuts were allowed to go into place and -- with no ability to move money into the FAA's operations budget to prevent what were seeing now, which is furloughing of the air traffic control workforce, along with the other employees of the FAA. The impacts are slowly going to become more and more significant as the ability to recover from the lack of staffing and move planes through the system safely gets harder and harder to do.

REHM

10:08:43
How long are the delays you're seeing?

GILBERT

10:08:47
Well, it depends. It's -- some of the busier airports and then if there's weather, that makes it even worse, but some of the busier airports, an hour, an hour and a half, two hours in some cases.

REHM

10:08:56
Jim Tankersley, you were slightly disagreeing there.

TANKERSLEY

10:09:00
No, no. Not at all. I think that we are seeing what we expected to see, and it's just this is what happens. This is what happens when you cut the budget and you cut it bluntly, so to speak, and the money doesn't get moved around. And now the question is the politics of it, will the FAA respond to growing pressure from Congress to find ways to move around? Can it find ways to move around money to alleviate this?

TANKERSLEY

10:09:28
And could there be another sort of patch bill passed in the Senate and the House and signed by the president that would allow for some of the flexibility that these senators are looking for to, again, alleviate these problems?

REHM

10:09:41
Trish, back to you. Which airports are expected to have the greatest delays?

GILBERT

10:09:47
The greatest areas -- delays you're going to see are going to be the New York airports including Newark and Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles.

REHM

10:09:58
What about Washington?

GILBERT

10:10:00
We are seeing delays in Washington, both Dulles, and yesterday was pretty significant delays out of DCA.

REHM

10:10:07
All right. And, Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal, what do you think is the administration's reasoning behind these furloughs?

MOORE

10:10:18
Well, we have had two major editorials in just the last two days on this issue, and I'd urge people to take a look at our editorial today. I take a very cynical view of this. I think this is the moment the president has been waiting for. He has -- as this sequester has gone on, he has wanted to inflict as much inconvenience and pain and suffering on the American people.

MOORE

10:10:40
We believe, and a lot of the congressional committees agree, the president has plenty of flexibility under the sequester to avoid these furloughs so that people are not being majorly inconvenienced. There's a huge cost to the private sector of these delays. But more importantly, this is putting safety of the skies is at risk.

MOORE

10:11:01
And so I think it's a very cynical ploy for the president, as we said in our editorial today, to try to turn the American people against these cuts, which I think are very necessary, and to get the Republicans to go back to the bargaining table and raise taxes on anyone who believes that there is not waste in the Department of Transportation, even in the FAA.

MOORE

10:11:22
You know, we have plenty of examples in our editorial today. Just one, you know, the Federal government is spending $500 million on something called sustainable cities. Well, let's, you know, they could cut that program and they could give that money to the FAA, and we wouldn't have to suffer these inconveniences and costs.

REHM

10:11:39
Trish, he just mentioned safety. How much of the flying passengers' safety is at risk here?

GILBERT

10:11:52
Well, I have flights this week, and so I believe safety right now is not of the concern. It is going to be an issue if this goes on and on for many days and many weeks. As you cut back arbitrarily in some areas, you reduce the layers of safety. Right now with the budget cuts, we're not able to maintain equipment.

GILBERT

10:12:13
The staffing levels are less than they used to be. And as a controller for 21 years before I took this position, you need all of your tools. You need all of your colleagues with you. And those people just aren't there right now. So it is a concern that they're take -- they're wiping away layers of redundancy that could lead to safety concerns.

REHM

10:12:32
Scott Lilly, how much flexibility do you believe the administration has moving funds around?

MR. SCOTT LILLY

10:12:42
Well, I think it's very limited. I think Congress has understandably been very concerned at the kind of damage that a president could do to his political enemies by using the ability to randomly cut funds. A president could eliminate airports and the districts of uncooperative members of Congress if he wanted to.

MR. SCOTT LILLY

10:13:06
And that's why the term program, project inactivity was inserted in Graham Redmond in 1985 and has continued and used today. And that basically means you can't -- you not only can't cut a program by any more than you cut another program. You can't cut a project within that program or even an activity within that project. So...

REHM

10:13:31
So you would disagree with Stephen Moore who says the president has the flexibility to cut, say, livable cities instead of the FAA?

LILLY

10:13:45
It's just -- I mean, it's just not -- it's contrary to what the law says, and the president has to follow the law. If an agency head spends more than he's appropriated, he can go to jail for it. If he spends less, he's in violation of the Impoundment Act. And so they have to be very precise about what they do and how they spend the money.

REHM

10:14:05
Jim Tankersley, what do you see?

TANKERSLEY

10:14:09
Well, I see here a budget process that is, in some ways, broken, just like Washington is broken. This is -- what usually happens when you fight over specific programs, like Steve is mentioning, is that members of Congress go to that to eliminate a wasteful program and to put money back into a place that is more necessary. And if you believe that one program is better than the other, then you make your case in committee. You're on the floor, and you pass a funding bill that funds your higher priorities.

REHM

10:14:37
So it didn't happen.

TANKERSLEY

10:14:38
Well, this sequester was specifically not designed not to do that. And so now, to be complaining about just the small parts of it -- and I do think it's interesting that we're only complaining about airports for all of the other things happening under the sequester, but that's a little bit misleading. It's misleading to say that Congress can't do anything here. Congress could absolutely pass a bill tomorrow saying, we think it's more important to fund air traffic controllers than sustainable cities.

REHM

10:15:03
But what do you say to Stephen Moore's argument that at the president's discretion, he could change some of these funding allocations, not so much through the law but around the law?

TANKERSLEY

10:15:21
I don't know if Steve was saying we should -- that he should go around the law. I think that -- correct me if I'm wrong, Steve, that you're saying that we should...

MOORE

10:15:29
He has the flexibility now to work, right.

TANKERSLEY

10:15:31
That we as a government have flexibility under this sequester. Is that right?

MOORE

10:15:34
And let me say this, I mean, first of all, one of the interesting things, and I'd love your reaction to this 'cause you're the closest to the air traffic control system, you know, when you talk -- the idea of this was every agency was going to take about a 4 percent cut.

REHM

10:15:47
Right.

MOORE

10:15:47
Well, the air traffic control system has taken about a 10 percent cut in terms of staffing. And I -- quite frankly, I don't understand why that is. I mean, why has there been...

REHM

10:15:55
Well, let's ask Trish Gilbert...

MOORE

10:15:56
...a disproportionate, you know, if it's supposed to be a...

REHM

10:15:59
Hold on, Steve.

MOORE

10:15:59
Yeah, yeah.

REHM

10:16:00
Go ahead, Trish.

GILBERT

10:16:03
As a representative for the air traffic controllers and many other safety professionals, we have been very adamant with the FAA about where they're making their cuts. And we don't always agree, but we've been very much, for lack of a better term, in their face about why they're cutting where they are and why the furloughs have to take place. This is my understanding, getting budget briefings from the FAA, is that 60 percent of the FAA's budget is the operations budget. So they exempted airport improvement program.

GILBERT

10:16:33
They have research and development facilities and equipment and then the operations budget, which is 60 percent of their budget. Seventy percent of that budget or a little bit more than 70 percent of that is salaries. Of that 70-plus percent, 70 percent of that is the front-lining workforce, which is your air traffic controllers and your technicians that maintain the equipment. So that is why you're seeing the bigger cuts in the FAA as opposed to other agencies across government is because it is so heavy on the operations budget and so heavy on the salary.

REHM

10:17:03
Scott Lilly.

LILLY

10:17:04
The reason is rather simple. The cut across the board is 5.5 percent. The FAA has cut less than that because Congress exempted the airport construction grant program from any cuts at all. I actually think if they wanted to fix this, they could take all of the money, the $650 million out of the airport construction program because it's long-term stuff that didn't have to be. But they did not...

REHM

10:17:33
But who's behind that? Who's behind that?

LILLY

10:17:38
That's been something that Congress has insisted on not getting those programs for a long time. So they've specified that. But if you cut 5.5 percent out of an agency budget, which is what we're doing to the operations account, and you do it over a period of six months, then you have to cut 10 percent during that six-month period. It's because we have an annualized cut of 5.5 percent that we're applying to a six-month period. And all agencies across the government are cutting about 10 to 12 percent.

REHM

10:18:09
Jim.

TANKERSLEY

10:18:10
Well, I think the other point, and I believe that Steve would have made this himself a little bit later or will agree with it, is that part of the problem with the sequester is that it exempts this huge area of federal spending, which is social safety net or entitlement spending from cuts. And so you're spreading the impact of budget cuts on defense and discretionary spending.

REHM

10:18:33
Jim Tankersley, economic policy correspondent for The Washington Post. When we come back, we'll hear from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and more.

REHM

10:20:05
And welcome back. Joining us now by phone is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Good morning, sir.

SECRETARY RAYMOND LAHOOD

10:20:14
Hey, good morning, Diane. When are you going out to Peoria? You know, that's my hometown.

REHM

10:20:18
Actually, I was just there a couple of weeks ago.

LAHOOD

10:20:22
Oh.

REHM

10:20:23
So I missed you.

LAHOOD

10:20:24
I heard it advertised on NPR when I was home last.

REHM

10:20:28
Yeah. Right.

LAHOOD

10:20:28
And I hope you had a good turnout.

REHM

10:20:30
I had a great turnout, and I loved every minute.

LAHOOD

10:20:35
Peoria loves Diane Rehm.

REHM

10:20:37
Thank you. Now, let me ask you the central question: How much flexibility is there in your budget as far as flight controllers are concerned?

LAHOOD

10:20:53
Diane, here's the story from the beginning: I started this several months ago when I went to the White House briefing room and announced on Feb. 22 that we had to come up with $1 billion dollars at DOT. Now, at DOT, we have 55,000 employees. Forty-seven thousand are FAA employees. We had to come up with $600 million from our FAA budget.

LAHOOD

10:21:19
And we had -- we made a decision to furlough all 47,000 employees. And a lot of those, 15,000 of those 47,000, are controllers. So this idea that we just decided to do this a couple of days ago is not accurate. We decided to do this when sequester clicked in back in January.

REHM

10:21:45
So...

REHM

10:21:46
I announced it on Feb. 22. So for those people who say Ray LaHood is crying wolf, the wolf has arrived.

REHM

10:21:53
All right.

LAHOOD

10:21:53
And I announced it in February.

REHM

10:21:55
All right. So you notified members of Congress about your plans in February?

LAHOOD

10:22:03
I announced it to the world on Feb. 22, and we have been consulting with Congress on this since sequester began.

REHM

10:22:13
All right. And tell me about how safety concerns and delays are being addressed.

LAHOOD

10:22:22
Safety is our number one priority, Diane. We will never compromise safety. We'll never take a backseat to anybody when it comes to safety. All of these furloughs have been timed so that we can safely guide planes in and out of airports around the country. Nobody needs to worry about having a safe flight. The flights will be safe. We have the safest aviation system in the world.

REHM

10:22:49
OK. But what about delays? People are already experiencing them in droves.

LAHOOD

10:22:56
They are, Diane. On Feb. 22, when I announced this, I announced -- and you can go look at the transcript, anybody can -- in the White House briefing room, 60- to 90-minute delays. And that does not account for weather problems. I said there will be 60- to 90-minute delays. As long ago as Feb. 22, I announced this. And if there's a thunderstorm in Chicago or a storm coming across the Pacific that hits LAX or San Francisco, the delays will be longer.

REHM

10:23:32
But how do you account for 1,200 flights delayed on Monday?

LAHOOD

10:23:39
The way we account for this, that's the total for all major airports around the country. That's not one airport.

REHM

10:23:45
No.

LAHOOD

10:23:46
That's a result of furloughs where you don't have the same number of controllers in the tower as you normally would, so you have to slow down flights. You have to tell airlines you're on a ground hold until we can space planes safely in and out of airports.

REHM

10:24:06
All right. And many of the critics of this administration are saying that you all have furloughed these flight controllers when you could've done something else with the sequester, you could have taken money from elsewhere, that through these furloughs, what you're doing is trying to impact the public in the most severe way to make political points. How do you respond?

LAHOOD

10:24:44
Nobody has looked out more for passengers and passenger safety than Ray LaHood, this DOT and President Obama's administration. We're the ones that implemented the three-hour tarmac rule. We're the ones that reduced tarmac delays. We're the ones that made the airlines give people their money back if their bags were lost. We have been looking out for passengers for 4 1/2 years. The idea that for some political reason we're trying to impact passengers is complete baloney.

LAHOOD

10:25:18
We had to find $600 million. And we looked at every contract. We reduced contracts. We eliminated contracts. We actually laid off all of our temporary employees. We used the 20 percent flexibility that was given to us. But we have done everything possible so that passengers -- fliers would not be impacted.

REHM

10:25:42
OK.

LAHOOD

10:25:42
But when you sequester FAA controllers, there is going to be slowdown in flight.

REHM

10:25:48
So could the FAA itself stop the furloughs if a law were passed, giving it more flexibility?

LAHOOD

10:25:59
Yes, Diane. If Congress were to pass the ability for us to transfer money around our budget, which sequester does not allow, that would be the fix. And we're calling on Congress to look at ways to help us solve this problem.

REHM

10:26:15
Secretary LaHood, you know that The Wall Street Journal has been one of your most vocal critics. And Stephen Moore of that Wall Street Journal editorial board is longing to ask you a question. Will you take it?

LAHOOD

10:26:35
Of course. Of course, I would.

REHM

10:26:36
Good.

MOORE

10:26:37
Hello, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for taking my question.

LAHOOD

10:26:39
Of course.

MOORE

10:26:40
I just had a question about, you know, I was very interested in what you said at the end of those questions from Diane about, you know, the flexibility because this is something, you know, when I talk to a lot of your former Republican colleagues in the House, they say they want to give you that flexibility.

MOORE

10:26:56
And I would think, given the public outrage about what's happening with these delays, you could, within 24 hours, get a deal between the president and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress to do exactly what you're saying. Is that -- so, I guess, my question is, is that something that you and President Obama would support?

LAHOOD

10:27:13
It's certainly something that we would look at. If Congress passes the ability for flexibility to move money around, for example, to move it out of the airport improvement fund in order to relieve these furloughs, we would certainly look at that. We would take a serious look at it and we would consider it.

MOORE

10:27:29
Great.

REHM

10:27:30
Now, I have coming on after I talk to you, Mr. Secretary, Bill Shuster, the Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Do you think he'd be agreeable to that?

LAHOOD

10:27:51
Well, look, Bill's a friend, and he's really stepped up as the new chair of the transportation committee. We look forward to working with Bill on any solutions that he might be able or willing to come up with.

REHM

10:28:05
There is one last question. How are you responding to the 18 questions that were posed to you in a letter by Senators Rockefeller and John Thune?

LAHOOD

10:28:20
I have a meeting with Sen. Rockefeller at 1:45 this afternoon in his office in the Hart Office Building.

REHM

10:28:27
And do you think something good might come out of that?

LAHOOD

10:28:32
Yeah. Diane, I intend to deliver a letter in response to his questions and answer any other questions directly. Sen. Rockefeller has been a dear friend, but he's also been a strong supporter of the FAA. He helped us pass an FAA bill. He's been for safety as we are and we will meet with him this afternoon, address his issues and look forward to working with him on trying to find a solution.

REHM

10:29:03
Well, Mr. Secretary, I have to tell you I am going to fly out of here on Friday. I hope it works well. If not, you'll hear from me.

LAHOOD

10:29:18
All right, Diane. I look forward -- I always look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

10:29:21
All right. Thanks a lot for joining us.

LAHOOD

10:29:22
Thank you.

REHM

10:29:23
Bye-bye. And, Steve Moore, having heard that, what's your response?

MOORE

10:29:29
Well, actually, I was kind of cheered by what he said because I do think the solution to this, Diane, is to pass some kind of law. Now, look, I think they actually have more flexibility than he says. But let's say that they don't have the flexibility. Let's give the FAA the flexibility so that they don't have to have all of these thousands of flight delays that are costing, you know, the American economy a lot of money.

MOORE

10:29:51
And by the way, this is only the first instance. We're going to see this happening as the sequester gets tighter and tighter. We're going to see these kinds of tactics being used by the Obama administration over the coming months or years.

REHM

10:30:04
Scott Lilly.

LILLY

10:30:05
Well, I think this is just nuts. It's costing everybody a huge amount. It's costing the FAA money because they get a tax from the passengers every time they fly.

REHM

10:30:14
And they have to pay people overtime, don't they, Trish?

GILBERT

10:30:19
That is correct. They are -- you know, they're throwing everything they can to get the operations moving as efficiently as they can and keep capacity up, which means they're -- they've stopped training, and they have trainees doing work that normally wouldn't have, or they've been in training. They're pulling staff specialists out of offices to do -- to work air traffic. And they're throwing costly overtime at the problem as well, which now you have to question. Are we really saving the money that needs to be saved?

REHM

10:30:45
All right. And joining us now is the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. He joins us from Capitol Hill. Good morning, sir.

REP. BILL SHUSTER

10:31:01
Good morning to you, Diane. Thanks for having me on.

REHM

10:31:03
I hope you've just heard Secretary LaHood say that there could be some flexibility within the FAA if the Congress so deems. Are you in favor of that?

SHUSTER

10:31:18
Well, Diane, first and foremost, the -- there is flexibility right now as we speak. And Secretary LaHood, who's a friend, served with him in the Congress, but the secretary, as a former appropriator, knows that we put in the FAA budget $9.7 billion, and within that is the Air Traffic Organization, the ATO, which has a budget of approximately $7.4 billion.

SHUSTER

10:31:44
And within that business line, that business unit, they can move that money around. They have significant flexibility within that business unit and to the tune of 2.7 billion which is not personnel. So, number one, they have the flexibility. There's -- at this point, there's no need for a law. They can do it as we speak, and everybody in this town knows that...

REHM

10:32:06
Well, I'm not sure everybody in this town...

SHUSTER

10:32:08
No.

REHM

10:32:09
...knows the facts as you are stating them.

SHUSTER

10:32:11
Well, then the people -- right. Well, the people in your show then should know now that they have that flexibility, and that's number one. Number two, there are 47,000 employees at the FAA. Fifteen thousand of them, roughly, are air traffic controllers. Now, if they've got to deal with furloughs, they should start with the nonessential, the folks that are not -- nonessential. The air traffic controllers, I believe, are essential to the safety of the traveling public. That's where they should start this furlough. They should weigh it heavy on that end, not on the safety aspect of it, and they're not doing that.

REHM

10:32:46
I understand there's -- Secretary LaHood just told us he's meeting with Sen. Jay Rockefeller at one o'clock this afternoon. Are you in on that meeting?

SHUSTER

10:33:01
No, I'm not. But I'm...

REHM

10:33:02
Why not?

SHUSTER

10:33:03
Well, I wasn't invited, I guess, was the main reason. And I have made it very clear, there's a third point here that the FAA, the way they're implementing this, they're treating every airport the same. This gets the same percentage cut. And when you look at an airport like the Chicago traffic, Chicago Air with 8,000 -- over 8,000 flights per day is being treated the same as the Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa, which has about 80 flights per day.

SHUSTER

10:33:31
They're both getting the exact same cut. We've got -- when you're running an organization -- I was a small business owner. And when you do -- you have to look at things and do things smart. You don't have to do everything across the board when you have the flexibility, and they do have the flexibility to...

REHM

10:33:45
All right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Trish, what about that?

SHUSTER

10:33:52
I'm sorry?

REHM

10:33:52
Excuse me, one of the guests here is Patricia Gilbert...

SHUSTER

10:33:57
Yes.

REHM

10:33:58
...of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. What about that, big airports as opposed to little ones?

GILBERT

10:34:07
Well, the whole national airspace system is connected, and let me give you an example that happened on Monday. Atlanta is one of the big airports. So with the reasoning that the chairman has given you, had we -- had the FAA exempted Atlanta and not furloughed anybody, would we have seen delays? The problem on Monday was not at Atlanta.

GILBERT

10:34:25
They had to reduce the arrival rate at Atlanta because they couldn't depart planes out of Atlanta because smaller airports in Florida were impacted with the furloughs and staffing as well. So you can't just exempt the big airports. All passengers don't fly from Atlanta to LA. They fly from, you know, West Virginia airports and West Virginia to Atlanta, to LA.

REHM

10:34:47
And, Scott, you wanted to make a point.

LILLY

10:34:50
Well, I think one of the things that comes through is you can cut this or you can cut that, but wherever you cut is going to be painful. I suggested last summer that one way they could handle this is shutting about 100 small -- other smaller airports in the United States.

REHM

10:35:07
What about that, Mr. Chairman. Did you oppose that?

SHUSTER

10:35:10
Well, I -- well, yes, I oppose that. Let's look, first of all, that they've known for 18 months that this was about to happen, this is potentially going to happen. They let the airlines know about a week before -- they let the traveling public a week before -- that they were doing this. We've requested for months now to give us their plan, to give us their safety analysis and what they're doing, and they've refused to do it.

SHUSTER

10:35:35
They're playing politics with this. This is all this is. This is -- and you just have to look at the first thing they closed. The very first thing they closed is White House tours to the public. And the -- when the travel season was -- the tourism season was about to start in Washington, they shut the White House down to the public, which is wrong. They could have come up with the money. I think even Donald Trump came up with the solution that he would match if they could find other money, and they still haven't done it.

SHUSTER

10:35:58
So what they're doing now, this is an opportunity for them to implement this to affect the 80 million or so people that fly in our skies every month. They're going to affect this -- one of the most important aspects of our economy, and they want to cause pain. They want people to be out there grumbling and griping. They think that's going to get us back to the table to raise taxes.

REHM

10:36:17
All right. And one other point that Secretary LaHood made was that, back in February, he made this public. He made the fact that the cuts were going to go across the board, that passengers would be affected. All airlines, all airports would be affected. Yet you say it just happened last week.

SHUSTER

10:36:46
Well, it did. They didn't -- we requested back in the fall -- both the House and the Senate committees were requesting information to let us see their analysis, and they did not share that with us. They didn't share it with us because all they've done is just straight across the board. It's maximum pain. That's their strategy to get the American traveling public, which would be about 80 million that fly in the skies every month, to get them to be grumbling about the sequestration so the president can have his -- try to have his way to raise taxes again on the American people.

REHM

10:37:16
All right. Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Bill Shuster, I want to thank you so much for joining us.

SHUSTER

10:37:28
Thank you very much, Diane. Appreciate it.

REHM

10:37:30
All right. And short break here. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. Stay with us.

REHM

10:40:04
And it's time to open the phones. As we talk about the FAA, flight attendants are also in the mix here, but it's really those who are watching the towers keeping flight safe. Let's go to Johnson City, Tenn. Good morning, Chris. You're on the air.

CHRIS

10:40:31
Good morning. I listen to you every day. Great show. I love you.

REHM

10:40:35
Thank you.

CHRIS

10:40:37
I take issue with the gentleman who is speaking that the president has the authority to choose what to cut. I'm looking at the legislation, Public Law 112-25 section 105 to allow the chairman of the budget committee to make appropriate budgetary adjustments, which is Paul Ryan.

REHM

10:40:56
You want to comment, Steve Moore?

MOORE

10:40:58
Well, look, we just heard from the committee chairman of the transportation committee who says that there is the flexibility to do this. That's point number one. Point number two, we should go back to February, which you were mentioning earlier.

MOORE

10:41:12
Back in February when the sequester was just starting and the Obama administration is saying, oh, my God we're going to have to close down air traffic control towers, and there're going to be air delays, the Republicans basically said to President Obama, we will pass a law that will give you the kind of flexibility that these things don't need to happen. The president was opposed to that because I believe that Mr. Shuster is right that what is going on here is a PR campaign to try to turn the sequester off.

REHM

10:41:42
Keywords there, you believe.

MOORE

10:41:44
Right.

REHM

10:41:45
What do you believe, Scott?

LILLY

10:41:48
Well, I think factually the administration and a number of people in Congress who've all said for a long time this is going to create chaos and people who supported these across-the-board cuts are now trying to dissociate themselves with it and say it's the implementation.

MOORE

10:42:05
Well, except there was the president. Let's be clear, again, about the history of this. This was the president's idea in the first place, and now for the president to say well, we didn't want to do this, well, why'd you come up with the idea?

LILLY

10:42:14
The president asked, I think, as you'll see if you read the record, he asked for a clean debt limit and the House voted on May 31, 2011...

MOORE

10:42:22
Yeah, it's 'cause they didn't want to end like...

REHM

10:42:23
(unintelligible).

LILLY

10:42:24
...unanimously against -- unanimously, on the Republican side, against passing a clean debt limit...

MOORE

10:42:29
Right. Right.

LILLY

10:42:30
...and insisted on across-the-board cuts. And finally at the 11th hour, the president caved and gave them the across-the-board cuts and here we are.

REHM

10:42:38
Jim Tankersley.

TANKERSLEY

10:42:39
Yeah. Let's remember how the politics that got us started down this road. It started with the idea that Republicans in Congress were concerned about the level of federal deficits and debt. Not in a extraordinarily controversial position but they chose to play politics with the federal debt limit, something that had been raised in the past. And they put the full faith in credit of the United States on the line, if they couldn't get a deal, to reduce spending.

TANKERSLEY

10:43:07
So they came up with a deal, and the deal was supposed to force both parties to the table to figure out a way to cut the budget, and here is where it breaks down. Because Republicans and Democrats could not agree on a strategy to find places in the budget where you would reduce spending or increase taxes or however you were going to do it, because they couldn't agree, this trigger mechanism kicked in.

TANKERSLEY

10:43:28
But we only have the trigger mechanism because at the very beginning, there was a threat that they would not raise the borrowing limit if we didn't have some sort of gun to the head of the government. So you start from there and then anybody accusing anybody else in Washington of playing politics over this is being a little bit disingenuous because both sides had absolutely played politics along the way at one point or another.

REHM

10:43:51
All right. To Veda here in Washington, D.C. Good morning.

MS. VEDA SHOOK

10:43:57
Good morning, Diane. I apologize for any background noise. I'm actually at Washington National Airport today.

MS. VEDA SHOOK

10:44:03
So I was looking at the screen, and, you know, there are some delays today. I don't know exactly what the cause of those delays are. But, you know, I'm here representing flight attendants today as president of the Association of Flight Attendants. And, you know, what I'm hearing and what we're not saying is that government matters, and we're finding that out.

MS. VEDA SHOOK

10:44:22
And, you know, these are not, you know, insignificant cuts, these are blunt cuts. It's taking a machete instead of a scalpel and a Congress member saying that, you know, do things smart. The fact is with sequestration, there's nothing smart about sequestration, and we're feeling the impact. So it's not just that air traffic controllers are having forced furloughs, it's there's also this human impact that these families are going to hurt because of this.

MS. VEDA SHOOK

10:44:46
Moreover, the significant impact on our economy and specifically on our airlines and their ability to move people back and forth turning the airlines and from an employee perspective, it's impacting our employees, our ability to get home to be with our families as scheduled. So across the board, you know, this is significant impact, and this is blamed on Congress. And they need (unintelligible)...

REHM

10:45:07
So what is your association attempting to do to reach members of Congress to let them know how you feel?

SHOOK

10:45:18
Well, we've been marginally talking about that because to be very frankly, been dealing with making sure that I'd still come back on board, and so that was right in front of our face, and thankfully, they're not coming on-board tomorrow or that would've made even more significant impact on delays to the airport with people coming through with their knives. So we have also honestly been receiving a very muddled message throughout the months on what would be appropriate response.

REHM

10:45:45
All right. Well, I thank you for calling this morning. Trish, do you want to talk about the airline industry-wide impact that these airline controllers have?

GILBERT

10:46:03
Well, and I think Veda hit it very nicely. The impact is so far reaching, and every community, every flier, every employee that serves the aviation community, it is -- it's significant. And this isn't a game. It's just not about controllers not being in the facilities and able to open up positions to keep runways open and radar rooms open. It -- the impact is not a good thing for this country.

GILBERT

10:46:29
We're a world leader in aviation, and this is not something that should be a political football. And it's very clear, we have one entity saying that there is flexibility and another saying there's not. And I think everybody needs to look at a solution. And rather than pointing fingers and get beyond that, I think we've all heard enough of it, let's figure out a way -- get in a room, figure out a way to pass legislation that makes it very clear there's flexibility, and you take away that game that's being played.

REHM

10:46:56
Scott, how likely is it that we're going to see a move in that direction?

LILLY

10:47:04
Well, I think it could be very easy for Congress to fix this if they would simply say, we're not going to have cuts in air traffic control. We're going to take it out of the airport improvement fund. I think that's it. There are going to be people in Congress that are against cutting the airport improvement fund. And my guess is the chairman, who was just on, will be one of the people who will oppose that. But that is the logical thing to do because it's long-term money, it doesn't have the immediate impact.

REHM

10:47:32
What's wrong with that, Steve?

MOORE

10:47:34
Nothing. I agree with that. Look, this is such a simple problem to solve, but here's the bigger framework. This is what, the third or fourth month of the sequester. This going to happen for the rest of the year, and then there are...

REHM

10:47:47
Till October.

MOORE

10:47:47
Till October, but then next year, the caps get even tighter. And so you're going to see, you know, this news gets tighter over time.

REHM

10:47:54
Unless people in Washington come to some sanity. This is ridiculous.

MOORE

10:47:59
To some kind of -- well, but we've been trying to do that for three years. I mean, the only thing I disagree with about what you were saying is that, look, you know, the -- you are absolutely right, so much of the money is entitlements. The president simply, until now, has not really been very forthcoming in terms of trying to deal with that huge, colossal spending. But...

REHM

10:48:17
Oh, I take issue with that, Steve.

MOORE

10:48:19
Give me an example. OK.

REHM

10:48:21
I think the president has put on the table some cutbacks in entitlements. Republicans have said it's not enough. They want more.

MOORE

10:48:34
OK. That he has put some on but they've been pretty trivial in my opinion given the size of the...

REHM

10:48:38
Well, trivial -- it's all in opinion. Let's go to Fort Myers Beach, Fla. Good morning, Brett. You're on the air.

BRETT

10:48:48
Good morning, Diane. It's a -- first time calling. And I just want to say that this is a nonpartisan comment. I'm not a Democrat or a Republican.

REHM

10:48:55
OK.

BRETT

10:48:55
I just can't understand the director who says that I announced on Feb. 26 that I'm only -- that we're going to keep all of our people in size. He was given a smaller budget 'cause airports are not needed. There are hundreds of small, little airports that aren't needed.

REHM

10:49:11
All right. Trish, what do you think?

GILBERT

10:49:13
I would say, you know, those airports need to be evaluated, but to arbitrarily close them because of money is a problem. They're part of the system, a safety system. Without doing an evaluation and analysis on the operations that go in and out of that airport, their proximity close to, you know, to bigger airports, who they serve and what do the communities them for, then that's a problem. Now, with proper evaluation, that's quite possible that that could be a way to save money but not in the short term.

REHM

10:49:39
Scott.

LILLY

10:49:40
Well, part of this plan is shutting down about 100 towers on contract airports. But if you were to try to take this whole $657 million -- billion in spending -- $657 million in spending by closing airports, you would have to closed a huge number of airports and have a big impact on lot of cities. The Fort Myers airport and the Sarasota airport, both right there in South Florida, would be under on -- under consideration for closure if we were to go that route. And that would have massive economic implications on those communities.

REHM

10:50:20
All right. To Hillsborough, N.C. Good morning, Megan.

MEGAN

10:50:26
Good morning. How are you?

REHM

10:50:28
Fine. Thanks.

MEGAN

10:50:29
Good. I wanted to call -- I also have, I believe, a nonpartisan question. I think many of my friends are very frustrated. I feel like there's so much blame that goes back and forth. And at this point, we just want a solution. And I'm kind of wondering why there have to be a completely public sector solution. I mean, there's deeper costs that are operational costs that are associated with an industry and very specific businesses.

MEGAN

10:50:54
And I guess I don't understand why does it all have to be taxed, why do we have to figure out how it can come from the federal government. Can't this be an opportunity for us to pragmatically address this as a private and public sector and say, hey, these costs are specifically associated with us doing our business and so we are going to absorb them?

REHM

10:51:16
Absorb them. I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean, Megan.

MEGAN

10:51:22
Well, I mean, I think either within the airlines themselves or the airports or -- there are some sort of airline industry private acceptance of some of the costs of operations for air traffic controller. I understand that it needs to be a national system. I understand that it needs to have sort of federal oversight. But the cost itself, why does the cost have to be specifically attached? Why...

REHM

10:51:46
Steve.

MOORE

10:51:47
There are already -- one of the things people don't realize is you pay a ticket tax now, and you know the details of this better than I do. Is that you pay a ticket tax so the system is supposed to be -- right, and correct me if I'm wrong -- sort of self-financing so...

REHM

10:52:00
Shared.

LILLY

10:52:01
What?

REHM

10:52:01
Shared between the public and...

MOORE

10:52:05
And the people who use it. The -- right, exactly.

REHM

10:52:06
...and the people who use it.

LILLY

10:52:08
The -- most of the FAA is funded out the airport trust fund.

MOORE

10:52:12
Right.

LILLY

10:52:15
Air traffic control is about 50 percent financed out of that and 50 percent not. But I think the point here is that there is already -- the public is paying for this through these taxes on airlines. And they're not getting the service because the sequestration denies the government from spending the money that is collected for that service. Part of that is that the government is not going to be able to collect the money because they're not allowing the flights to take off.

REHM

10:52:47
Scott...

LILLY

10:52:47
So the government is going to lose money at same time it's saving it.

REHM

10:52:51
Scott Lilly, he's senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Kirk. You're on the air.

KIRK

10:53:09
Good morning. My comment is that I think it's somewhat entertaining, I guess, from my perspective because I don't fly too frequently for work. That it's quite clear that most of the Executives and the Legislative branches were involved in creating this. And now that it's affecting everyone, instead of seemingly taking action, everyone is just pointing fingers at the other side and saying, well, our hands are tied behind our back. Yet those of us who voted for everyone are stuck with dealing with the consequences, and it doesn't seem like we can really affect any change to get people to take action.

REHM

10:53:44
Jim Tankersley, a fair comment?

TANKERSLEY

10:53:47
Yeah. I actually think the first thing the caller just said was the most interesting to me because -- just because a lot of people fly, and we all think about airlines. Well, that's what our focus on today. But the sequester actually is having effects across the budget in some places where people just don't have as -- lot of a voice. Unemployment benefits have been curtailed. You have seen park police begin -- going on furloughs this week. Housing vouchers in Fairfax County, Va., were rescinded.

TANKERSLEY

10:54:14
So there -- there's pain that happens. Some of it, I think, absolutely, is going to be more visible than others. But again, back to the question of why we can't do this in the way that you're supposed to when you're a government, why can't lawmakers all sit down and say, these are our priorities? We disagree on some of them. Let's come to an agreement on how much money we're going to raise through taxes, and how much spending we're going to do and in what areas.

REHM

10:54:39
And how do you answer your own question?

TANKERSLEY

10:54:41
I mean, the answer is Washington has become so polarized that those conversations don't really happen under meaningful level. The Republicans don't want higher taxes. The president doesn't want to cut the spending levels much farther than they are already. And so we're at this impasse as to where -- almost impasse that everyone just seems to think the next election will break and the next election keeps not breaking it.

REHM

10:55:01
Scott.

LILLY

10:55:03
We have a big problem in this country with our budget, and that problem really has to do with the number of old people that we have and the rapid growth of the elderly in this country. And everybody says they want to do entitlement reform, but they don't say what entitlement reform is, which is cutting the benefits to old people. So we have these extraneous fights to try to take everybody's attention off of the fact that nobody wants to deal with the basic issue. I think you have to raise taxes in order to pay for the benefits for old people, but nobody is willing to go there at this point.

REHM

10:55:33
So we have totally opposing views here. You say you're going to have to raise taxes 'cause you got to take care of more older people. You say it's totally a presidential ploy to hit back at Republicans. You say the public is going to suffer. And you, Jim Tankersley, say the public is going to suffer even more. What's the next area we're likely to see and be hit with?

TANKERSLEY

10:56:09
Well, I think that -- and Scott and I are talking about this before the show -- that some of the areas that we see in our economy right now, like air traffic that are being slowed down, will have broad effects, sand-in-the-gears kind of effects. So if you can't move people to the places they need to be for an extended amount of time, that's going to slow down economic activity.

TANKERSLEY

10:56:28
If people are being furloughed across the economy and they have less money to spend, that means less time at restaurants, that means less shopping at Target. These ripple effects are going to go out. It probably will chill economic activity, and that general slow down is the thing that I worry about most depending on how it comes into place.

REHM

10:56:49
Jim Tankersley, he's economic policy correspondent for The Washington Post. Stephen Moore is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Patricia Gilbert, she is with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress. Let's just hope everybody flies safe. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.