No one likes getting stranded at the airport.
So it was good politics for Congress to fly to the rescue of air travelers, passing legislation to end the sequester-driven furloughs of air traffic controllers after just one week.
No one wants to get food poisoning, either.
So it wasn't surprising when Congress dished up $55 million in new money to spare meat inspectors from sequestration — the $85 billion across-the-board spending cut that hit most domestic and defense programs beginning in March.
But good politics isn't the same as good policy.
No, we're not endorsing flight delays or tainted meat. Our beef is with an approach to government that produces these special dispensations.
They're the latest symptom of a serious problem: the chronic failure of Congress and the White House to address fiscal issues except on a crisis-by-crisis basis.
The sequester was an ill-conceived agreement to end one self-imposed budget crisis (remember the super committee?) by scheduling another one so onerous that both parties would be compelled to settle on a long-term plan for federal spending and debt relief.
So much for a political doomsday machine.
As usual, the first impulse in Washington was to cast partisan blame. After the finger-pointing came accommodations. So instead of a deal, we're left with a new source of special-interest legislation. Rather than scouring appropriation bills for earmarks, reporters and reformers will need to be on the lookout for exemptions.
Tucked into the same measure as the money for meat inspections was a waiver for a tuition assistance program for service members. The administration found money to exempt airport security and prison guards from cutbacks. And during their week's vacation, many senators and House members are home rallying support for still more exemptions.
When Congress returns to Washington, among those waiting to talk about waivers are drug companies and medical device manufacturers, according to the news site Politico, which reports that exemptions are shaping up as a new source of business for lobbying firms.
But don't expect to see the same enthusiasm on K Street or Capitol Hill for millions of ordinary Americans affected by sequestration — seniors counting on Medicare, poor children in Head Start programs, people collecting unemployment benefits, vacationing families confronted by cutbacks at national parks and the Smithsonian Institution.
Spending cuts are a necessary ingredient for any federal budget plan. But the sequester cut spending with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel. It's evidence of the stubborn unwillingness of Congress to set priorities.
This is an optimal time for a budget deal. A slow but steady recovery already is cutting the deficit, and interest rates and inflation remain near record lows. Some near-term spending on highways and other infrastructure can bolster the recovery, coupled with some modest tax increases and entitlement reforms to ensure that the national debt continues to decline as a percentage of GDP.
But the prospects for a deal gets slimmer each time Washington settles for expediency — and the next faux crisis.
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