WASHINGTON — Rep. James Lankford, whose Oklahoma City district includes the training center for the nation's air traffic controllers, said Thursday that the Obama administration is playing budget politics in requiring controllers to take furlough days.
“This is pure politics at its worst,” Lankford, a Republican, said. “They have plenty of money at FAA to be able to accommodate (budget cuts) without having to furlough workers and without having to delay the American public.”
Lankford joined several of his Republican colleagues at a Capitol Hill news conference to criticize the administration and the Federal Aviation Administration for furloughs that began Sunday and have been delaying flights across the country.
The FAA contends the furloughs of 15,000 air traffic controllers were made necessary by the budget cuts that went into effect last month. And the White House took issue this week with a main contention of Republicans — that the FAA could have absorbed the cuts without hitting air traffic controllers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, responding to the charge the administration was trying to make the budget cuts as painful as possible, said Wednesday, “The law does not allow for the kind of flexibility when it comes to the FAA budget that some of these members — Republicans, principally — all claim it has.
“They should read the law. They wrote it, they should know what's in it,” Carney said.
Carney said the law “walls off” three-quarters of the transportation budget and doesn't allow any flexibility to reduce the impact on the FAA.
“Why? Because it was written to be a bad law,” Carney said. “It was written to be as onerous as possible.”
The budget cuts, known as the sequester, were part of the 2011 debt ceiling deal and called for $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years, with the Defense Department taking about half of the reductions. However, the cuts weren't expected to go into effect since they could have been replaced with more targeted cuts as part of a broad deficit reduction package.
Carney said “Republicans in Congress made a political, tactical decision to embrace the sequester. They did and they declared it a victory. They said it's a victory for the tea party.”
In Oklahoma City, some contractors have already moved toward laying off workers at the FAA's Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, and the FAA has announced that it won't conduct more training for air traffic controllers and technicians at the center until October, when the next fiscal year begins.
Lankford said the FAA was applying the furloughs equally at all airports, even though some have more than the required number of air traffic controllers. And he said some federal departments, like the Justice Department and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), have been able to find enough savings to avert furloughs.
Some senators were working Thursday on an effort to give the FAA enough flexibility with its various accounts to move money around and avoid more furloughs of air traffic controllers.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., the chairman of the House transportation committee, said he would look at any compromise forged by the Senate. But he said he believes the FAA can move money around without any changes in law.