Yesterday, I discussed the offensively misplaced--though frankly unsurprising--priorities of the United States Congress, which took swift action to remedy the negative impact of the budgetary sequester on air travelers while ignoring legislation that might substantially improve--if not save--the lives of more needy Americans. As I thought more about the issue, though, I realized how the events of the past week also represent a political fuck-up (technical term) for the Obama Administration and Democrats in general.
President Obama, et al, had originally decreed that no funding would be "restored" to sequestered agencies on a piecemeal basis. The whole point of across-the-board budget cuts was to inflict pain on everybody: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, sane and Bachmann. Obama figured that, once the negative effects of sequestration trickled down--or up, as the case may be--to the general population, disgruntled constituents would pressure their elected representatives to come to an agreement on a far-reaching and equitable deficit reduction plan, ideally one that would include a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. By alleviating the pain of air travelers--while doing nothing to solve long-term fiscal problems--Congressional supporters of a long-term solution have effectively lost--or at least diminished--their leverage against those (read: Republican true-believers) who are more or less happy with the current situation. Indeed, this is why GOP Congressional leaders are largely claiming victory today.
One thing to note about what exactly happened in Congress, though: No new funds were given to the Transportation Department to support the return of furloughed workers. All Congress did was give the Secretary of Transportation permission to move money from one area (airport improvements, I believe) to another. In the long run, then, the same problems will likely arise: Either this money will run out, or airports in disrepair will lead to delays (at best!) somewhere down the line.
Where Democrats screwed up politically was when they initially said that agencies couldn't simply shift money from one "pot" to another. While I understand the intent behind this rule--to force the sequester's consequences on the majority of Americans as quickly as possible--the rule itself defies common sense. When a household is short on cash in, say, its primary checking account, it will not declare bankruptcy if it still has money in savings (indeed, it won't be allowed to declare bankruptcy). While I know that comparisons between a household and a country are of limited accuracy and value, they have a logical (and thus political) appeal. In the face of lengthy delays on runways across the country, Republicans could make a simple appeal: "Not only does Big Government take too much of your money, but Big Brother Obama won't even let federal agencies spend the money they have!" And they kind of have a point.
Of course, all the Republicans (and the Democrats who voted with them) have accomplished is a temporary reprieve. Eventually, all these agencies will run out of money for real, and eventually people will start to feel the pain of the sequester in earnest. Still, it's upsetting to watch GOP Congressmen disingenuously claim to have the interests of average Americans in mind as they "restore" funds that were never really gone in the first place.