The Need to Manage Spending:
It is not controversial to assert that our American political system has ground down to a state of paralysis: the sides are so polarized, and so non-cooperative, that the status quo is running out of control. Those with power (i.e., money) are riding with an ongoing free pass, while the vast majority of us are watching, shaking our heads, getting increasingly disillusioned while also becoming less able to provide for our families. The rich are getting richer, but there is another status quo group who are perversely benefiting from this paralysis: the comfortably compensated bureaucrats in charge of agencies such as FAA.
Let’s look at this from a common perspective: you are managing your own limited family finances. You accept the reality that you cannot spend recklessly or excessively. You set a budget, and you say ‘no’ to expenses that are unnecessary and/or create debt problems that will haunt you next year. Problems that may eventually bankrupt you. Being responsible, you will take care of your family both today, and tomorrow. You will look short term (food on the table) and long-term (ensuring funds for a college education for your kids).
That’s you; this is Congress and FAA. This sequester came about as Congress’ effort to force agencies (such as FAA) to manage their family budget. FAA was a good target for a sequester. FAA is a matured agency, has been around since 1958, and has successfully helped out through the full development of the U.S. aviation infrastructure. But, the metrics show aviation activities have actually been declining during the last decade, while FAA’s costs continue to grow. In other words, FAA completed its first purpose (creating the infrastructure) and thus became ripe for downsizing, but instead of scaling back, FAA has created more and more new product variations to sustain its unbridled growth.
Have you ever thought about the exit strategy of a cancerous tumor? They tend not to pack up and leave when they have matured; they just tend to grow, and grow. So, too, is the regrettable reality of ‘programs’ and ‘organizations’. In both the public sector and the private sector, we all depend on moderating influences to manage scarcity and prevent this excessive growth. Which is why we need a functioning Congress. And Congress has functioned…
- …Congress crafted the bill that formed FAA, and Congress funded FAA at the start and every year since.
- …Congress has been responsible for guiding FAA fiscally, away from programs that should not be funded, and toward programs that are of value to the nation.
- …Congress has taken action whenever FAA programs spin out of control, or when failures occur. This has included hearings, requests for GAO studies, letters to the FAA Administrator, pressuring FAA to resolve failures that are harming constituents, and voicing occasional (nay, frequent) criticisms to the press.
- …and, Congress has benefited from FAA’s programs. The laws Congress has passed have fueled the collection of passenger taxes, which are then allocated to projects at small local airports, ensuring every elected official can ‘bring home the bacon’ and prime the incumbency pump. (…and sometimes it looks like that ‘incumbency pump’ may be the only thing working in Congress…)
And so it was that our Congress passed the sequester. All Congress asked for was that FAA take a close look and tighten up their budget. FAA’s response was to kick in the PR campaign; they activated their ‘collaborative stakeholders’ in the employee unions and in the industry to file lawsuits, cry doom-and-gloom, and generally fulfill the need to misinform the taxpayers (making FAA less directly guilty of this disservice). The overall campaign was just like ‘Swift Boat’ (…and not intending to be partisan here; both U.S. political parties are equally guilty of this ugly and destructive campaign tactic). So, FAA threatened to close down the 149 towers that are far more cost-effective than the 149 slowest towers staffed with FAA controllers (and, these contract towers are more critically needed than perhaps half of the thousands of FAA employees earning $180K plus per year). They delayed, and delayed, all the while getting lots of media coverage with which to stir up public fears. FAA declared they had no choice but to furlough 5% (or 10%, or 20%, depending on which ‘collaborative partner’ is spinning the fears), and dropped that decision on Congress just days before the furloughs were to begin. FAA then explained to Congress, “gosh, we had no choice, due to the way you wrote the law”; i.e., FAA insisted that Congress insisted that the furloughs had to be applied uniformly. So, this was all Congress’ mess, and FAA was not to blame for anything…
Wait a minute. Is FAA really suddenly worried about conforming with any Congressional mandate? Given FAA’s history, does FAA harbor any real fear that they may be in trouble, if they keep the system running safely and efficiently by sloshing their funds from an unneeded program to sustain their core purpose? When money gets tight, we manage the family budget with actions that sometimes cause pain or second-guessing. But, the important thing is, we take action; we MANAGE the problem, and we bravely and rationally address the second-guessing if and when it occurs. The whole process flows, to protect the welfare of the entire family, not just to sustain the spending habits and indulgences of one irresponsible player.
What is failing here? Why, in times when most areas of the economy are contracting, and when FAA’s own data show aviation is also contracting, …why are we continuing to budget for discretionary add-ons like NextGen? Does this really only serve those within the Av-Gov complex who churn up ideas year to year, so as to justify their employment?
And, lastly, ponder this: if this furlough scenario had happened in a more responsible political climate, FAA’s leaders would have been fired for orchestrating a work slowdown. Just like the disciplinary actions FAA has taken against controllers for ‘sick-outs’ and other past work slowdowns. Think about that; it might be a true statement….
The Temporary Fix:
And so, late last week, Congress rushed through SB 853, the ‘Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013’. FAA ended the furloughs over the weekend. President Obama had to delay signing because it lacked an ‘s’; the phrasing authorized FAA to transfer funds “…to the appropriations account providing for the operations of the FAA…,” but needed to refer to the ‘appropriations accounts‘. (…I promise; I did not make this up…)
So, yeah, one less-than-critical ‘s’ was missing in this tiny piece of legislation. Not one of 535 (+/-) legislators and another thousand or so aids caught the error. Which may be equal to the number who actually read it.