04/24/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Airport Sequester Watch: Live!


Heading out to the left coast, in the air with what looks like a pretty good Wi-Fi connection.

Re: sequester, definitely saw some delays at D.C. National -- spoke to the folks sending flights to NYC and they said that backups were already starting, driven by the furloughs of 1,500 air traffic controllers that commenced yesterday. (Though, truth be told, unless they somehow got caught in the federal budget crossfire, I'd like to know why the lines at Einstein Bagels were the worst in the airport; 20 minutes after ordering, I actually had to board before they could toast my bagel. One should have absolutely no patience for the myth of private-vs.-public sector efficiency.)

But let's talk for a second about these airport delays. First, it's an obvious point, but I'm sympathetic to this New York Times editorial this AM on how you don't see policy makers fretting much about sequester-driven lotteries forHead Start slots. But start threatening travel and commerce, and you get their attention pronto.

Second, there's some interesting and important, albeit highly weedy, substance here. Policy makers and editorial pages are suggesting that FAA didn't have to furlough air-traffic controllers across the board -- they could have upped the furloughs at small, less busy airports and avoided cuts at the larger hubs. Republicans, you'll be shocked to find out, are busy trying to blame this all on the president (Cantor tweet from yesterday: "Why is President Obama delaying your flight.")

Putting aside the Cantorian nonsense, did/does the FAA have that kind of leeway? It's not obvious that they do. The sequester law insists that "programs, projects, and activities" are cut proportionally within individual accounts. It was supposed to be a deterrent and was thus written to prevent policy makers from making choices that would soften its impact, which is why it also include defense cuts.

You'd have to look in the transportation appropriation bills to be sure (which btw, would be a 2012 bill because Congress hasn't passed a 2013 version -- it's the Einstein Bagels approach to governing) but I suspect there'd be a legal risk to interpreting the law as giving the FAA the leeway to cherry pick (I'll check it out and update later). Of course, legislation could change that, as was the case with the sequester exemption from meat inspection.

It's also not obvious that hitting smaller airports with more furloughs is a painless solution, especially given the interconnectedness of the system.

But the main point here is that you can't order up your government dysfunction with a side of efficiency. You're either on the we're-the-Tea-Party-and-we're-here-to-shut-things-down bus or you're off of it. The president has consistently offered a balanced solution to prevent and, in his budget, to replace the sequester, including the entitlement cuts Republicans insist on. But they've been unwilling to accept new tax revenues as part of the deal, and that's why kids who should be in pre-school are sitting at home and others are spending hours stuck on the tarmac.

To quote my colleague Richard Kogan, "There is no 'right way' to make deep and indiscriminate budget cuts, and it is wrong to blame the administration for them, since they opposed them at every step."

Now, why Einstein can't toast a bagel... that's a whole different problem.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.