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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Secretary of Transportation Demonstrates the Bad Faith Approach of the Administration to the Sequester

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave an interview to Jonathan Karl of ABC News today that demonstrates the bad faith of the Obama Administration with respect to the sequester.  Karl challenged the Administration's scare-mongering that implementation of the sequester will mean air traffic controllers would have to be laid off, endangering or inconveniencing air travelers.

As you read the following exchange, please keep in mind that the DOT budget for FY2012 was $72.577 billion.


KARL: Can’t you find some other way to cut without telling air traffic controllers to stay home?
LAHOOD: This has to be a part of it. DOT has 55,000 employees. The largest number of those employees are at the FAA, and the largest number of those employees are controllers, and they’re all over the country. There has to be some impact in order to save a billion dollars. A billion dollars is a lot of money.
KARL: Let’s be clear: It’s less than 2 percent of your budget.
LAHOOD: It’s a lot of money, Jonathan.

If a billion dollars is "a lot of money", what's $72.577 billion?  Yet the Obama budget proposal for Transportation is to increase that by $1.9 billion , which is 1.9X "a lot of money".
So I googled the DOT budget and found the following:
The largest component of the budget has nothing to do with air traffic.  It is the National Highway Administration, which constitutes $41.545 billion, or 57.2%, of LaHood's budget.  A simple 2.4% cut or delay in its outlays would produce all the savings LaHood is charged to deliver, without touching air traffic controllers.  Included in that $41.5 billion are $4 billion for the "Livable Communities Program" and $700 million of "Transportation Leadership Awards".  Those sound like excellent places to look for savings that don't impact safety.  In fact, the "Livable Communities Program" gets further funding under the Federal Transit Administration category.  The budget also calls for over $4 billion of investment in high speed rail, principally in low-density areas of California, which ought to be scrapped entirely; if California wants a high-speed rail system within its borders, it should fund it itself. But at a minimum it can be scaled back over time without harm..
In contrast, the FAA is only $15.9 billion , or 22% of the budget.  The "Operations" line item for the FAA, where air traffic controllers' salaries are contained, is $9.6 billion. That category obviously contains many other items.  There are about 15,000 federal civilian air traffic controllers.  Their total compensation probably does not exceed $1.5 billion, which is about 2% of the DOT budget.  It's offensive that the Secretary and Administration are focusing on cuts to that tiny sliver of the budget.
However, it should be noted that, as the FAA itself has said in its staffing plan: (1) air traffic has declined significantly since 2000 whereas (2) FAA headcount has increased slightly since then. In fact, the FAA has added a net 4400 controllers in the last eight years.  So any furloughing is only going to bring us back to staffing levels that existed during very recent, very safe years, and the scare-mongering the Administration is doing is utterly indefensible.
The DOT budget list four priority goals for the next 24 months.  Aviation safety and air traffic efficiency are two of them, the others being reducing road fatalities and expanding that high-speed rail system. So anything else in that budget is a non-priority goal that should be subordinated to the air traffic controllers staying on the job. 
The "Office of the Secretary" consumes about $850 million.  That is 85% of "a lot of money".  Surely some of that could be cut back as well.  
It  took  me about 20 minutes to go through the budget and come up with these observations.  Any competent executive acting in good faith could produce $1 billion of savings in that budget.  There is absolutely no good faith, non-political justification to be threatening to cut back on air traffic controllers.   It's just a disingenuous argument by a bureaucracy that is determined to prevent its budget from ever going down, and an Administration that crassly tries to transform every issue into a politically motivated attack  attack on fiscal discipline, in the hope of winning both Houses in 2014 to resume its profligate spending and soak-the-rich agenda.
Kudos to Jonathan Karl for confronting the Secretary as he did.