Budget Politics Forcing Congress To Pick Favorites

Apr 26, 2013

Call it the Whac-a-Mole approach to budgeting.

Congress restored budget flexibility so the FAA can keep air traffic controllers working, just days after their furloughs had started and flight delays began stacking up.

With spending cuts caused by sequestration rolling throughout the government, the question becomes which programs Congress might address next — and why.

"That's the parlor game in Washington," says Scott Lilly, a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "There are dozens and dozens of candidates."

The federal government runs thousands of programs across the country, many of which are starting to feel the pinch. Most of them lack the visibility of air traffic controllers or meat inspectors, whom Congress decided to spare from the indiscriminate cuts of the sequester last month.

Many more programs will be visibly affected in May and June, as mandatory one-month notices for furloughs of federal employees begin to ripen.

Congress won't step in to restore each and every program, but the swift response to complaints about air travel delays suggests the task of cutting back on popular government services remains as daunting as ever.

"They're willing to reverse or fix the problem when they feel the slightest bit of pressure," says Stan Collender, a federal budget expert with the communications firm Qorvis. "What this tells you is the appetite for spending cuts — inside the Beltway and outside the Beltway — is very limited."

What Comes Next

As Collender notes, it's the highly visible functions of government — the ones used directly by the public — that can quickly garner attention from the media and Congress.

With the National Park Service threatening to shut parks for a certain number of days every month, the public will no doubt grow angry as the summer vacation season gets underway.

"That goes back to 1995 and 1996," Collender says. "The closing of the parks was one of the big things in the government shutdown that caused voter outcry and forced [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and company to back down."

Air travelers caught a break with the rapid congressional response that shifted funds around to end furloughs for controllers, but they may still encounter delays in the weeks to come. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delayed shutting down 149 contract towers — air traffic facilities run by private companies — until June 15. But that date is still looming.

And the Transportation Security Administration is leaving positions vacant and limiting overtime, which means travelers can look forward to long lines in the airports themselves.

Cutting Off Chemo

There are lots of other programs that are being affected, but the public may not feel the sting right away. Road construction delays won't bollix traffic for a good long time, while research grants from the National Science Foundation will only affect recipients in the short term.

But plenty of other cuts are starting to hit home for groups of people, if not the American public writ large. The amount of backlogs of multifamily housing loan applications at the Federal Housing Administration, for instance, will likely spike and slow upgrades and other property deals.

Most of Medicare was shielded from the sequester, but because chemotherapy is funded by part of the program that was not, clinics are starting to turn away thousands of patients because they say they can't afford to provide treatments at the reduced rate.

The U.S. Geological Survey has announced that it will shut down more than 100 gauges that monitor spring flooding, offering less notice to people who may be affected downstream. The closures will take place in nine states, starting next month with Idaho and Maine.

"The fallout from the sequester is going to keep increasing as time unfolds," says Chuck Konigsberg, president of The Federal Budget Group LLC, a consulting firm.

Not Enough Juice

Konigsberg suggests it's likely that Congress will step in to adjust funding for programs when "things get really bad." But there are lots of programs that serve constituencies who may not get the same political reaction as business travelers inconvenienced by delays.

"Head Start parents don't have campaign contributions and a lot of juice," says Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, which advocates for programs that benefit children and families. "There's not a Head Start Parents PAC, but all the airlines have PACs."

Other programs may enjoy broad support, but the way they are cut may cause chronic problems, rather than the more acute pain triggered by flight delays. Parents won't be happy in the fall if they find class sizes have increased by two children apiece, but they won't necessarily demand immediate relief.

As Congress selectively reacts to complaints caused by the sequester, it may stand accused of playing favorites. But no matter how fair the triage process, piecemeal fixes are probably not the most efficient way to run something as large as the federal government.

"You sort of shutdown the government and you find where your problems are and you try to fix them one at a time," says Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "It's a ludicrous process and approach."

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