Democrats Surrender on Sequestration

The Democrats proposed sequestration as part of a package to secure an increase in the debt ceiling, but they never expected it to go into effect. When it did, they felt double-crossed, apparently because they thought Republicans owed it to them to fold like a cheap suit, as usual. When the Republicans figured out that sticking with the sequester was a pretty good outcome–it represented a modest, but real, restraint on federal spending, which is what Republicans always say they want–the Democrats went to Plan B.

It’s a strategy they have often used before: cut back on services that voters care about, and blame the resulting pain on those who “cut” the budget, i.e., prevented it from increasing as fast as the Democrats would like. They did this during the Clinton administration’s temporary furlough of non-essential federal employees (better known as the government shutdown). They closed the federal parks during the summer, and blamed the unhappiness of those who had planned vacations around the parks on Newt Gingrich. The school district where I live did something similar a few years ago. They proposed a bond issue to increase education funding which failed at the polls, twice. Instead of giving up, they came around a third time. This time, they said that if the voters didn’t go along with the tax increase, they would terminate all school bus service. Not cut teacher pensions or reduce the number of administrators, but stop all bus service. The third time was a charm, and the tax increase passed.

The Democrats thought that if they used the sequestration reductions as an excuse to cut back on services the voters want, the voters would blame Republicans, and the Democrats would be strongly positioned for the next round of budget negotiations. They thought, in particular, that laying off air traffic controllers in order to cause flight delays would be a powerful weapon against the GOP. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Too many Americans have seen through the Democrats’ game. And, more broadly, the general perception is that the federal government wastes a great deal of money, so that a two or three percent reduction in the growth of federal spending ought to be absorbed easily without cutting back on vital services.

So the blowback from flight delays has been against the Democrats, not the Republicans. You have to give the Democrats credit, though. They don’t reinforce failure. When they see that they are getting clobbered, they take their losses and move on. So today The Hill headlined: “House passes bill to end air traffic furloughs in victory for the GOP.”

The House on Friday passed legislation that would let the government redirect millions of dollars to air traffic controllers’ salaries and expenses in a bid to end sequester-related furloughs that have caused flight delays around the country.

Members approved the Reducing Flight Delays Act in an overwhelming 361-41 vote, just a day after the Senate approved the same bill by unanimous consent. A two-thirds vote was needed, as House leaders called it up as a suspension bill.

The bill was sent directly to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

The vote is a victory for House Republicans, who had been pushing for a restructuring of the $600 million sequester cut to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to avoid air traffic controller layoffs. In contrast, Democrats were looking for a broader solution to the sequester that included new taxes.

But Democrats abandoned that line as passengers filed thousands of complaints about delayed flights.

The sequester, of course, is not a problem that needs a “solution,” as The Hill put it. Rather, it is the most meaningful effort in a long time to restrain the growth of federal spending.

One of conservatives’ chief frustrations for a generation is that most Americans say the federal government spends too much money, and wastes too much money, yet it has proved more less impossible to convert this consensus into meaningful spending cuts. Perhaps the sequester will be seen, with hindsight, as the moment when the American people finally said “Enough,” and meant it.

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