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.
Late Thursday, the Senate voted to allow the FAA to shift money among budget accounts to avoid controller furloughs. Approval still is needed in the House, which could vote as early as Friday.
Republicans and the airline industry insist the FAA could find other places to cut in 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."
But 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 may sound.
Travel already has been reduced, mainly to trips to keep the air traffic system functioning, like sending a technician to a facility to resolve an equipment problem, Huerta said. Overtime is being preserved for emergencies.
The largest of the agency's operations contracts is to provide and maintain a communications system for air traffic operations. The second largest contract is for provision of weather, information on flight restrictions and other services to pilots. And the third largest pays companies to provide controllers for towers at small airports. The FAA's proposal to save money by shutting down 149 of the towers already has drawn complaints from lawmakers in both parties who don't want airports in their states and districts to lose towers.
"I would have to take the administration's position on this," said Bill Hoagland, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee aide who helped write a 1985 budget law that was the model for the current budget-cutting law. "They are administering the law as written."
The budget law is specifically worded so that cuts are spread evenly across programs, making it difficult for the FAA to use money for contracts, for example, to make up for payroll cuts even through both are in the same budget "account," he said.
At a news conference Thursday, congressional Republicans said if the FAA had to furlough controllers, it should have furloughed more of them in places like Waterloo, Iowa, instead of at big hub airports.
The FAA decided against doing that because it would mean picking winners and losers among airlines and regions of the country, Huerta said. Also, the air traffic system is by nature interconnected -- small airports are needed to feed passengers to the bigger hubs, he said.
Lawmakers also have complained that the FAA didn't warn them air traffic disruptions were coming.
"How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand, the sequester, impact on the layoffs, the furloughs? Not a word. Not a breath," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., angrily demanded of Huerta at a hearing this week.
Airline and airport officials say they didn't receive specific information from the FAA about how the furloughs might affect air travel until a meeting called by the agency on April 16, six days before the furloughs took effect. Airport officials said they weren't invited and had to push the FAA to allow them to come to the meeting.
In fact, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA officials have been warning Congress and airlines since February that the furloughs were coming and that they could cause major delays. LaHood even held a news conference at the White House. Administration officials also discussed the impending furloughs at congressional hearings in March and earlier this month.
But lawmakers and industry officials also have a point. In none of those hearings did FAA or Transportation Department officials go out of their way to disclose to Congress the extent of the anticipated flight delay mess, even though they had that information in hand at three hearings last week. Nor did they solicit help from Congress to avoid the furloughs. Rather, officials emphasized that safety would be maintained.
"We offered our apologies to them for the fact that we had not kept them informed about all of the things that we had been discussing," LaHood told reporters after a meeting Wednesday with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the senior Republican member of the committee, to discuss possible legislation to resolve the situation.