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Why the FAA Vote Isn’t a Model for Dealing with Sequestration

Congress’ vote to allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shift funds away from other areas to pay air traffic controllers has revived questions about whether this approach can solve the many other problems associated with the sequestration budget cuts.

It can’t.

Shifting funds from airport infrastructure upgrades to day-to-day operations is not a “free lunch” — it reduces funding for construction and renovation projects, though the impact likely won’t be felt this year.

Moreover, most departments don’t have large resources to redirect without causing significant near-term harm.

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.

The cuts would have real-life, short-run consequences — less health care for Native Americans, longer waiting lists for life-saving HIV drugs and for child care assistance, and less help for low-income families and seniors to pay their energy bills.

Or take the Education Department.  The vast majority of its discretionary funding that faces sequestration goes to states and localities to fund public schools.  Giving the department more flexibility without additional resources wouldn’t protect school districts from cuts.

Simply put, there aren’t secret pots of gold within federal departments that can painlessly replace sequestration.  Policymakers should replace sequestration with a balanced mix of spending cuts and tax increases that protect important public services and the still struggling economy.