A top House Republican accused the FAA of a “shocking lapse of management” in giving the airlines just “hours” notice before furloughing air traffic controllers, leaving the industry struggling to adjust to major flight delays.
Seven weeks after the budget sequesters took effect, the controller furloughs have been the first major pain the public has felt, and have prompted a round of old-style finger-pointing.
The Obama administration says the furloughs had to happen because of the across-the-board cuts, and the Federal Aviation Administration said it had no flexibility. But congressional Republicans say the FAA never asked for flexibility and imposed the cuts last week with almost no notice, making it as painful as possible.
“You waited until hours until it was to be placed into effect,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the FAA’s spending. “I find that shocking — a shocking lapse of management.”
But Michael P. Huerta, the FAA’s chief, said his agency had warned in general terms two months ago that furloughs would likely have to happen — though he said it didn’t have final details until last week, and airlines and airports were told on April 16.
He said airlines should have been prepared to adjust their schedules to accommodate the furloughs, which amount to sending controllers home for one day per paycheck.
The fight over the FAA highlights the battle lines for the sequester more broadly.
Congressional Republicans want the Obama administration to step up and ask for areas where it needs flexibility to keep some major operations open — such as air traffic controllers.
But the administration has refused to make those requests and the White House even rejected a Republican bill that would have given it flexibility to move money around. President Obama is holding out for tax increases, saying the government needs more money to be able to cancel the sequesters.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the blame for the flight delays rests squarely on congressional Republicans, who rejected Mr. Obama’s calls for tax increases, which helped ensure the sequesters took effect.
“Unfortunately, instead of acting to avert them and to delay the sequester or eliminate it through the kind of broad-based, bipartisan, balanced deficit reduction that the country supports, Republicans in Congress made a political, tactical decision to embrace the sequester,” Mr. Carney said. “They did and they declared it a victory.”
He also said the House GOP budget this year includes the same sequester cuts.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats said they’ll try to pass a bill to end the sequesters for the next five months by counting savings from winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Republicans called that a gimmick — they said everyone already expects war funding to drop, and counting the leftover money as savings in disingenuous.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said House Republicans counted the war savings in one of their previous budgets, too.
“Republicans must accept that they have an obligation to cooperate with Democrats to help stop these draconian cuts and mitigate those consequences,” Mr. Reid said.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s furlough decision remains a hot topic.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said the FAA is furloughing all of its employees equally — which means the 15,000 air traffic controllers are being furloughed at the same rate as the agency’s other 17,000 employees, who aren’t controllers.
Mr. Coburn said that decision makes no sense.
Other lawmakers said the FAA should have decided how to spread out the furloughs so major hub airports such as those in Chicago and Atlanta, which have tremendous traffic, don’t suffer as much.
But Mr. Huerta said that would be picking winners and losers — something the agency didn’t want to do.