Why ‘Flexibility’ Is An Unworkable Solution For Sequestration Budget Cuts

In response to the outcry from business travelers, the airline industry, and others affected by growing flight delays, Congress stepped in last week to provide the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with “flexibility” to move funding around within the agency to avert scheduled furloughs of air-traffic controllers necessitated by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Congress remained unmoved as meals on wheels went undelivered, cancer clinics turned away patients, domestic violence programs were slashed, and children were dropped from Head Start programs across the country.

Flight delays highlighted just one of the problems with sequestration due to the unique situation of the FAA. Unlike other agencies, the FAA has a relatively large amount of funding set aside for long-term construction and maintenance projects. This funding is not spare cash, but a large pot of money not currently being spent on high-priority short-term needs. Replacing air traffic controller furloughs with cuts to these funds was impossible under sequestration, so Congress had to pass a law to give the FAA the flexibility to make the tough choices itself.

This approach is only a Band-Aid for the FAA, which will now pay air traffic controllers at the expense of long-term priorities Congress had already approved. For other agencies to which Congress may be tempted to give the same flexibility, however, it is completely unworkable. Most agencies do not have large capital accounts like the FAA. Their funding is instead spent on staffing, projects, and grants this year, and their programs have already been cut to the bone, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

Take, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Many have decried cuts in the National Institutes of Health, Head Start, and seniors programs (such as meals on wheels and other supports that help frail seniors live in the community), all of which are within HHS.

These three areas together comprise half of all discretionary funding within HHS. Suppose Congress gave HHS the flexibility to shift funds to undo sequestration in these areas. If HHS used that authority to shield these areas from reductions, the cuts in all other HHS programs would have to roughly double, on average.

That means doubling the cuts in areas such as food and drug safety, disease prevention, child care and energy assistance for low-income families, mental health and substance abuse treatment, the Indian Health Service, community health centers, and HIV/AIDS treatment.

“Flexibility” would not create a magic new source of funding for all the crucial programs within HHS, and there is no extra funding floating around without a purpose. HHS cannot shelter one key program without deepening the cuts to another. Most agencies look like HHS, not the FAA. The Department of Justice cannot protect the grants administered by the Office on Violence Against Women without increasing cuts to other key DOJ priorities or furloughing the attorneys who administer them.

This highlights the main problem with sequestration: domestic programs have already been cut to the bone, and any further spending reductions are extremely damaging. In fact, Congress’s newfound desire to grant the president more “flexibility” is a direct result of the harshness of these cuts – congressional Republicans insist on a cuts-only approach but are unable to identify cuts that would not be equally damaging to national priorities.

By closing loopholes and limiting deductions that benefit America’s wealthiest citizens, Congress could completely replace sequestration, restoring services to the poor, children, and the elderly, reinvesting in priorities like scientific research, food and drug safety, and HIV/AIDS treatment, and bringing balance back to a deficit-reduction approach that has relied disproportionately on spending cuts instead of revenue increases. Congress should act to fix the problem it has created, not play games to shift political blame while the economy and vital public programs suffer.

Our guest blogger is Kitty Richards, the Associate Director for Tax Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.