WASHINGTON -- With disgruntled passengers complaining about airline flight delays, Republican lawmakers and the airline industry pounced on the Obama administration. The glitch was invented by the White House for political reasons, they charged, and officials waited until the last minute to warn Congress and the airlines of the impending upheaval.
They were wrong on the first count, and partly right on the second.
The FAA has no choice but to cut $637 million as its share of $85 billion in automatic, government-wide spending cuts that must be achieved by the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30.
The cuts are required under a law enacted two years ago as the government was approaching its debt limit. Democrats were in favor of raising the debt limit without strings attached so as not to provoke an economic crisis, but Republicans insisted on substantial cuts in exchange. The compromise was to require that every government "program, project and activity" -- with some exceptions, like Medicare -- be cut equally.
"It was intentionally designed to provide no discretion whatsoever," said Stan Collender, a former House and Senate budget committee staffer, and author of "The Guide to the Federal Budget."
At the time, it was thought the prospects of the cuts would be so dreadful that it would force both sides to negotiate a more sensible plan to resolve the government's budget woes. But that didn't happen, and the first of the cuts kicked in on March 1.
As a result, the FAA has reduced the work schedules of nearly all of its 47,000 employees by one day every two weeks, including 15,000 air traffic controllers, as well as thousands of air traffic supervisors, managers and technicians who keep airport towers and radar facility equipment working. That's a 10 percent cut in hours and pay.
The House voted overwhelmingly Friday to allow the FAA to shift money among budget accounts to avoid controller furloughs, following quick approval Thursday in the Senate. The White House has said President Obama will go along with the move.
Republicans and the airline industry insist the FAA could find other places to cut its nearly $16 billion annual budget. Two airline trade associations have filed a lawsuit trying to halt the furloughs.
"They [the White House] want to cause the most pain to the American people out there so they will put pressure on Congress to back away from sequestration [spending cuts]," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "This should be laid right at the president's feet."
However, the budget law doesn't allow steeper cuts in one program in order to offset cuts in another. Air traffic control is part of the FAA's operations account, 70 percent of which goes toward employee salaries. The FAA plans to cut $485 million from operations, about $220 million of which will come from furloughs, said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Shuster points to contracts, consultants and travel as other expenditures that could be cut instead -- but that's not as simple as it might sound.