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Sequestration

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As anger mounted over thousands of delayed flights due to furloughed air-traffic controllers required by sequestration, President Obama and Congress were continuing their selective treatment of government agencies under the the plan to slash $85 billion in spending this year.

The deficit reductions through the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, are the first in a 10-year plan to slash government spending by more than $1 trillion as part of a deal to hike the debt ceiling more than a year-and-a-half ago.

The automatic, across-the-board nature of the reductions agreed was expected to make them so onerous that Congress and the president would agree on an alternative deficit reduction plan to avoid them. That didn’t happen, and now the impact of furloughs, layoffs and program spending cuts is being felt, most visibly in the past week at U.S. airports.

As a result of air-traffic controller furloughs ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration to save $637 million by Oct. 1, thousands of passengers were stranded at large and small airports across the country in the three days after the agency started furloughing 13,000 air traffic controllers and closing smaller airports.

The White House and FAA administrators insist the sequester leaves them little latitude on where to make the spending cuts. Legislation passed by the Senate and expected to be approved by the House Friday would give the FAA greater flexibility than what is permitted by the sequester cuts.

This follows other special exemptions granted for food inspectors, Transportation Security Administration officers and prison guards, but leave the inflexibility in place for other departments and agencies that have found ways to implement the changes with less disruption to their operations.

The Justice, Interior and Housing and Urban Development departments, the Pentagon and the Environmental Protection Agency have been able to accommodate the cuts with fewer than anticipated furloughs. Some FAA critics contend the agency intentionally manufactured the crisis.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said, “This recent round of furloughs is driven, not by the necessity of budget cuts, but political calculation and sheer incompetence along with the administration’s desire to apparently maximize the pain on American taxpayers. It boggles the mind.”

Meanwhile less dramatic impacts on other federally funded agencies are being felt. Northern New York Head Start programs expect to lose more than $300,000 under sequestration.

Amidst rising flooding dangers in the Midwest, the U.S. Geological Survey will have to shut down hundreds of gauges tracking water levels, making it harder to warn residents.

The problems can be expected to worsen in future years as more cuts kick in. Rather than a piecemeal approach that favors agencies and groups with influential constituencies, Congress needs to take another look at the entire sequestration plan and find a smoother, more rational path to deficit reduction.

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