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As Manager-in-Chief, Obama Blamed for FAA Woes

As Manager-in-Chief, Obama Blamed for FAA Woes

By Alexis Simendinger - April 24, 2013

The White House predicted last year that frustrations spawned by airline traffic delays would grab the public’s attention and force Congress to correct the misshapen results of lopping through federal budgets with a guillotine.

And they were right that air travelers would get the message, but wrong about Congress’s willingness to avert the dreaded realities of budget sequester.

Suddenly this week, the chief executive who warned about turbulent air also began feeling the brunt of the blame. “Fix it, Mr. President” is now the message aimed at the White House from lawmakers, the airline industry, industry unions, the Transportation Department employees faced with furloughs, and from airline passengers inconvenienced by Washington’s decisions.

President Obama, circling Congress in search of a hospitable policy runway at the start of his second term, was accused by conservative lawmakers this week of fabricating the impact of $1 billion in transportation budget cuts, and engineering Federal Aviation Administration furloughs as a way to dramatize his insistence that across-the-board cuts are bone-headed and should be eliminated.

Amid a terrorism investigation, plus assertions that the federal government should have inspected a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, before it caught fire and exploded, the president becomes the government’s go-to manager.

When the Veterans Administration became mired in a backlog of disability claims, the public unease migrated to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. When the Department of Health and Human Services missed deadlines to implement provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the president was held to account by supporters and detractors of the law.

And this week, misgivings about the FBI’s 2011 investigation (at Russia’s request) into the suspected radical leanings of deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev earned a second look on Capitol Hill. Concerns that the FBI had stumbled over what might have been important terrorism information prompted private briefings for lawmakers and a written statement of support for the FBI from the president.

The FAA’s implementation of furloughs for 1,500 air traffic controllers is just another in a long line of executive headaches piling up at the White House. The Transportation Department has insisted it lacks legal authority to avert more than $600 million in FAA cuts ordered by law. Some legislators think the president has the power to shift existing accounts around at DOT, while others -- most prominently Obama himself -- say Congress must act to replace the sequester.

Senate Republicans gave the White House and the FAA an earful Tuesday. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Transportation Department, is not usually a tart-tongued partisan, but she accused the administration of not playing straight with Congress or with the public when it comes to its capacity to soften the budget blows at DOT before October, which is the start of the new fiscal year.

“It is … a manufactured crisis that this administration has the authority, working with Congress, to prevent,” Collins said on Capitol Hill. (She and at least 14 other female senators dined with the president Tuesday evening at the White House and talked policy.)

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who may be in Obama’s company Thursday at an event honoring 14 people killed in the plant explosion, said he believed the airport delays blamed on the sequester were “phony” and “contrived. “This is entirely manageable by the executive branch,” he added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to concentrate on finding a fix as the traveling public gives all of Washington demerits for budget-related dysfunction. The industry has tried suing in federal court, without success. Happy to see Obama blamed by irate travelers, congressional Republicans said he is either exaggerating a problem that doesn’t exist or has the power to fix whatever the problem really is. Other lawmakers have endorsed legislation to give DOT more flexibility to shift program appropriations to spare controllers from furloughs.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada floated an idea Tuesday to replace at least the $86 billion sequester this year with other “savings” -- that is, future appropriations considered unspent -- from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His idea, quickly critiqued by conservatives as a gimmick, ignored Obama’s repeated insistence that he stands ready to sign a larger budget deal that raises new revenues as part of a package curbing future deficits and jettisoning the across-the-board cuts currently in law for a decade.

Recognizing that long lines at airports heading into the summer travel season might not improve Obama’s job approval numbers -- or legislative traction -- anytime soon, the White House said the president stands ready to work with Congress on Plan C.

“If Congress has another idea about how to alleviate the challenges that sequester has caused for the FAA and for American travelers, we are … happy to look at it,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “But let's be clear ... any short-term or targeted fix to this problem is just a Band-Aid. … It does not solve the overall problem.”

Maybe so. But a short-term fix may be the only kind that can pull up to the gate in Washington. At least this spring. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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