This is why we’re doomed.
Confronted with an expanded version of the delays that plague air travelers on a daily basis in this country, the American people rose up in mighty anger at the sequester. And Congress listened. And then immediately restored the funds cut from the Federal Aviation Administration, thus allowing the end of air traffic controller furloughs, and a return to normalcy in the air.
A couple of quick points:
First, it seems obvious the FAA’s response to the sequester was designed to inflict maximum inconvenience on the public, a punishment for the obvious failure of the voters to inveigh against their members of Congress to pass a budget. Creating a greater level of inconvenience than even the airlines could ever contemplate is a perfect way to get regular folk riled up.
(I’ve often said revolution will come to America not when constitutional liberties such as free speech, privacy rights and protections against illegal searches are truncated, but when the expected conveniences of everyday life are. Do away with the First Amendment if you will, and people will utter nary a word. Interfere with the “right” to watch TV while drinking beer and eating a freshly delivered pizza, and people might actually lumber out on the streets in protest, assuming there are only re-runs on. Now we can add extraordinarily long airport waits to the list.)
Second, isn’t it odd how the government always seems to find the money to fund something when it needs to, notwithstanding supposed austerity? It took months to work out the sequester deal, weeks to decide how it would be implemented, but mere days to figure out how to pay those furloughed controllers. And when the time came to implement the solution, Congress voted overwhelmingly and eagerly to do so. (Everybody in Nevada’s congressional delegation — Republicans and Democrats alike — apparently voted aye, although the Senate’s vote was not recorded. Prior to the vote, Sen. Dean Heller asked the FAA administrator in a letter whether it was really necessary to furlough air traffic controllers. The honest answer: Apparently not, senator.)
But beyond what the sequester says about how the government manages money in a crisis, and how politicians respond to a crisis, what does this incident say about us?
There have been no shortage of people pointing out America’s growing deficits and debt, and arguing about how they will affect us in the future. As a growing portion of the federal budget goes to service the debt borrowed to keep that government running, our ability to fund that government slowly starts to diminish. And our choices as to how we’re going to fix that problem become fewer.
What’s going to happen when, by sheer fiscal reality, we are no longer able to use accounting tricks, stopgap solutions, tax increases or inflationary money-printing to “solve” these woes? What happens when we need to make difficult choices about what to do with popular programs?
Americans were outraged at having to wait for hours on tarmacs during the short-lived FAA furloughs. How are they going to feel when COLAs for Social Security must be cut, retirement ages raised and benefits reduced? Or when Medicare benefits must be cut back, or subjected to a rigorous means test? What happens when we run out of money to fix the roads, and traffic woes increase? Or when regular mail (for those of us who still use it) takes longer, because the U.S. Postal Service has stopped delivering on odd-numbered days to afford fully funded pension contributions? Or when we can’t hire enough police and firefighters to keep our cities safe?
If we couldn’t handle a few days of travel delays, what are we going to do when the real and terrible consequences of our dysfunctional government finally become clear?
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702)387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.