Last August and September, I did a series of eight posts about how, contrary to Tea Party and John Boehner assertions, federal spending was actually very popular. As I said at the time, Americans don’t want less government; they just want government that costs less.
The latest installment — episode 9 — happened last week when the air traffic control problems caused by the sequester were fixed in what by congressional standards was warp speed.
Faced with an immediate backlash from flyers, Congress and the White House enacted legislation that fixed the problems less than a week after the furloughs caused long delays in the skies and long security lines at the airports.
Yes…Flyers are a relatively elite group relative to the population at large. Yes…this is a group that has more influence and a larger megaphone than the average voter. And yes…the delays were easier for the media to cover and so were more visible than sequester-related reductions in other programs.
But my main point from last year’s series of posts is just a relevant now. Faced with the choice of a reduced federal service or a reduction in spending, the decision was immediate and unmistakable: a federal service was the winner.
I looked at the coverage of the FAA furloughs closely for any sign of anyone declaring that this is the price we have to pay for reducing the deficit. As far as I can tell either no one said it, or no one said it loud enough for it to be recorded. Convenience rather than belt tightening was the clear preference. (Please let me know if you saw the opposite.)
This says a great deal about the budget debate that’s ahead.
1. Federal programs that have the potential to inconvenience large groups — like air traffic control– are going to be very difficult to cut no matter what.
2. As happened with the sequester, spending reductions for these programs put in place with great fanfare and lots of political chestbumping are very likely to be reversed within a relatively short period. It might take longer than a week, but the reversals should be expected and built in to projections.
3. If the FAA was hard to cut, think about Medicare and Medicaid, which are far more important to many more people than air traffic control. Indeed, the biggest lesson of the FAA sequester reversal is that changes in Medicare and Medicaid will be far more difficult that anyone is imagining.
4. Federal employees should be worried. The administrative and operating expenses of most departments and agencies will not be a great concern to voters because it’s hard to see how most of that affects them directly.
5. The National Park Service may well be the next reversal if furloughs cause the parks to close one day a week or month as has been rumored.
6. The IRS may also be a candidate for a reversal if it becomes obvious that refunds are seriously delayed.