Monday, February 25, 2013

The Sequester Airport Shakedown

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

Up until this week, the contest to see who will get the lion’s share of the blame for the sequester has been the main event in Washington. Part of that was involved in the White House’s effort to disavow the paternity of this awful idea. But now that Bob Woodward has blown that up, they are back to their main task of arguing that any suffering or inconvenience that stems from the measure will be due to the GOP refusing to accept the president’s demands and raise taxes. While talking about the long-term impact of layoffs or lower allocations for programs can certainly drive the argument about the sequester, Democrats also know that the way the cuts impact the daily life of Americans will be even more influential.

That’s why the focus this week has been on things like the possible travails that travelers will experience at airports when the sequester goes into effect. In theory that ought to create tremendous pressure on Republicans to give in to the president, evoking the spectacle of aggravated passengers as canceled flights and long security lines bring air travel to a grinding halt.

But if it comes out that these delays have been as much the result of manipulative decisions by the authorities that are geared toward maximizing inconvenience rather than just cutting expenditures, it could cause some real blow back for the administration. Figures such as LaHood need to be very careful in the way the sequester is administered. As much as the president is the beneficiary of a largely complacent press corps, any monkey business aimed at making things look even worse than they are could erase any temporary advantage the president might get from this dustup.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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