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Flight delays: Is Obama furloughing air traffic controllers for political gain?
Republicans claim the White House is exploiting mandatory budget cuts for leverage
The FAA air traffic control furloughs have reportedly caused up to 1,200 delays so far.
The FAA air traffic control furloughs have reportedly caused up to 1,200 delays so far. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
I

s President Obama behind the recent spate of airline delays?

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began furloughing workers because of mandatory budget cuts that kicked in this year as part of the so-called sequester. And some Republican lawmakers are charging that the furloughs aren't necessary, but are rather a political stunt intended to irk Americans and turn them against the GOP ahead of future budget talks.

The FAA is requiring that all of its 47,000 employees take one day off every two weeks, part of an effort to achieve the $637 million in cuts the agency must make by the end of September. That includes all 15,000 air traffic controllers, whose diminished presence on Monday was blamed for delays at some major airports. The FAA announced Tuesday that staff reductions had so far caused 1,200 delays

Republicans instantly seized on the news of snarled air travel, launching a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #ObamaFlightDelays.

"President Obama should focus more on making responsible spending cuts & less on reckless political stunts," one tweet from the Republican Governors Association read.

Republicans contend that the agency should be able to find other ways to achieve the necessary across-the-board cuts. The Republican-led House Transportation Committee has suggested a few other places the FAA could cut spending without affecting personnel, with the committee's chair, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), arguing in a statement that the FAA had the "the flexibility to reduce costs elsewhere."

"This disregard for the American public is indicative that the Administration views the sequester as an attempt to score political points rather than address real issues and find real savings in a bloated federal bureaucracy," he said.

However, trimming all those millions may not be as easy as some Republicans make it out to be. For one, almost three-quarters of the FAA's budget goes to paying salaries, leaving little else to to trim.

"The biggest issue for the FAA is that 71 percent of its operations budget goes to pay salaries for controllers, supervisors, air safety inspectors, and technicians," says The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, who fact-checked Shuster's proposal back in February. "When an agency with high personnel costs is asked to cut about 5 percent of its annual budget in just seven months, by definition a large chunk of that has to come from personnel."

Kessler added that, by misinterpreting the FAA's budget, Shuster had proposed savings that were merely "illusionary." The FAA made a similar claim months ago when discussing possible ways to comply with the sequester's cuts. 

"This is not an action we take lightly, and we are looking at all options to reduce costs, including contracts and non-operational expenses — but given the magnitude of the reductions we face, it does not appear possible to avoid these furloughs," FAA head Michael Huerta said in February

As The Huffington Post's Sam Stein points out, the FAA has already taken some budgetary steps aimed at avoiding the furloughs, leaving them with even less wiggle room.

But the fat isn't all that easy to skim, as [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood noted in a statement. According to the Transportation secretary, the FAA had already shifted funds within accounts to avoid furloughs while still protecting air travel safety. The agency had cut contracts, stopped funding for low traffic towers and reduced the amount of traveling among its officials. [Huffington Post]

Democrats have countered that Republicans are to blame for the delays because they refused to reach a deal to avert the mandatory budget cuts. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney shot back at Republican claims of political gamesmanship, saying this week that the sequester "was never meant to be law because of consequences like this."

Obama and Democrats have already offered plans to replace pieces of the sequester with other targeted cuts, sparing more sensitive expenditures. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced another attempt to do just that, saying that he would soon introduce a bill to defray some of the sequester's cuts with savings found elsewhere in the budget.

Jon Terbush is a staff writer for TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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