President Barack Obama had the opportunity this week to make an irresponsible Congress face the consequences of its own dumb actions. For reasons I cannot fathom, he took a pass.
Rather than use the veto pen that must be gathering dust in some Oval Office drawer, Obama signed legislation that cushions air travelers from the effects of the crude, cruel budget cuts known as the "sequester." The Federal Aviation Administration is now allowed to shuffle funds around to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers — thus avoiding flight delays.
At his news conference Tuesday, Obama said he agreed to sign the measure because the alternative was to "impose a whole bunch of delays on passengers." That's true — and it's precisely why the president should have vetoed this quick-fix bill.
Remember how we got here. Republicans in the House refused to compromise on a far-reaching budget deal, insisting there had to be deep spending cuts but no new revenue. Both sides agreed to a package of across-the-board cuts that were designed specifically to be unacceptable. This Damoclean sword was supposed to provide an incentive for reaching a comprehensive deal. But the gambit failed.
Obama said he would not go along with attempts by Congress to selectively ameliorate the impact of sequestration. After all, the whole point was to make both sides so uncomfortable that they would fall into one another's arms in a desperate embrace of deal-making. The incentive disappears if either side is allowed to alleviate its sharpest pains.
A few weeks of long flight delays, frequent cancellations and crowded airports full of angry, frustrated voters might have concentrated the minds of even the most anti-government Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But now, no worries.
Meanwhile, Congress is offering no emergency legislation to restore Head Start funds for preschoolers. Nor is an urgent remedy being designed for poor people who will have to go without their Section 8 housing subsidies. The president could have told Congress that he will agree to make travel more convenient for their jet-set constituents, all right — if and when they send him a companion bill restoring needed benefits for low-income citizens.
Obama noted Tuesday that even in terms of air travel, the FAA bill was "not a solution." The money that will keep the controllers on the job was originally slated for airport improvements. If these projects are not undertaken, the president said, those who use our aging airports will suffer congestion and delays in the future.
But he signed the thing anyway. Sigh.