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Sequestration and the Failure of the Fourth Estate

Sequestration and the Failure of the Fourth Estate

By Scott Lilly - March 20, 2013

In recent weeks, several highly regarded journalists have embarrassed themselves on the subject of sequestration. Brian Williams on the “NBC Nightly News” suggested that in implementing its budget cuts the White House may be “picking its targets, looking to make its point in a big showy way.” The network’s senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, elaborated on Williams’s thesis, offering several examples of misplaced priorities in the choices being made by the White House in implementing the sequester. Myers observed, “The Federal Aviation Administration says it may need to furlough air traffic controllers and close towers, creating delays — yet it’s spending $20 million giving away money to tiny airports … that might get one private plane landing a week.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley made much the same point two weeks earlier in an interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “As far as we can figure out, the FAA budget … is about $15 billion give or take. They’re going to have to cut $600 million, about 4 percent. Why is that enough to cause planes to be delayed for an hour and a half? There surely must be things inside the FAA budget where can you get rid of 4 percent.”
Both Myers and Crowley are correct in saying that it would be possible to cut the Federal Aviation Administration budget in a far less disruptive way than the sequestration plan outlined by the agency’s administrator, Michael Huerta, on February 22. Cutting grants to airports would in my judgment be an excellent place to start. It is true as Myers suggests that some of the funding goes to airports that have a very low volume of passengers. Further, these grants won’t even be awarded until later in the current fiscal years, and they will fund improvement projects that generally take a good while to start and a long time to complete. As a result, cutting them will have a fraction of the impact on the economy that laying off air traffic controllers will have. A less than 20 percent whack at this $3.5 billion pot of money would mean that nothing else in the FAA would have to be touched.

So why did the FAA administrator along with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the White House make the decision to cut the controllers instead? Was it about grandstanding and budget hype? All I can say to the producers, editors, and reporters at these two networks and the numerous other journalists who have made similar mistakes in recent weeks is that it is time you read the legislation Congress passed more than 19 months ago.

The Budget Control Act, which raised the debt limit, averted national default, and in return required the president to issue a sequester order if the so-called super committee failed to reach agreement, also directed the president in how he was to prepare that sequester order. Those instructions are codified in Chapter 20 of Title 2 of the U.S. Code, which is entitled “Emergency Powers to Eliminate Budget Deficits.” Among the thousands of words of instructions that the president must comply with is Section 905, entitled “Exempt Programs and Activities.” This section goes through numerous categories of programs that will not be subject to sequestration excluding more than 150 from the process. The final subparagraph of this section essentially exempts the seven programs under the spending jurisdiction of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Senate counterpart, the Committee on Environment and Public Works. These are the only discretionary programs that are controlled by committees other than the House and Senate appropriations committees and their masters had the clout to make them exempt. Among those seven programs are Federal Aid Highways and Ms. Myers’s Grants-In-Aid for Airports.
As a result the president can order no cut in airport grants and as a result must make somewhat larger cuts in all other nondefense discretionary programs.

Even if Congress had not exempted the airport grants from sequestration, the strategy for averting flight delays and averting tower closures suggested by both Myers and Crowley—take the bulk of the money out of lower priority programs—would not be permitted by the sequester legislation.
Granting the president the authority to unilaterally decide where and how to cut appropriated funds represents a major transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive. It goes to the very heart of the issue of separation of powers and the system of checks and balances. Congress’s ability to control and define the resources made available to the executive is the foundation of that system.

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This article is reprinted with permission from the Center for American Progress

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