Sequestration: A Moral Dilemma

The effects of sequestration are finally starting to be felt. The sequester was designed back in 2011 to act as the sword of Damocles to force Congress to resolve its budgetary impasse. Congress instead chose to let the sword fall. As a result, earlier this year $85 billion in indiscriminate budget cuts were made mandatory affecting every area of government operation from military spending to health care and education.

By design the cuts were to be across-the-board with little discretion as to which services would be cut and which would be maintained. Many government agencies were forced to implement a rationing of services through a staggered schedule of furloughs sending employees home on a rotating schedule of unpaid leave.

Some of the effects of sequestration have received more public attention than others.

FAA_Furloughs.JPEG-023c9The FAA announced it would make up its $637 million share of the cuts by furloughing 47,000 employees for up to 11 days over the course of the summer, including nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers. The agency also said it would shut down 149 of the nation’s 516 air traffic control towers before the end of the year.

The furloughs of air traffic controllers began a week ago, causing cascading delays that held up flights at many of America’s busiest airports. Some flights were cancelled entirely, and the disruptions left thousands of travellers frustrated and furious.

Eric CantorRepublican members of Congress were quick to seize the opportunity and blame the President for the disruptions while distancing themselves from their role in the sequester. House majority leader Eric Cantor tweeted, “Why is President Obama unnecessarily delaying your flight?”

Within days both houses of Congress had approved legislation allowing the FAA to allocate money from other sources to end the furloughs and restore air traffic to normal. (The money will be diverted from the Airport Improvement Program, made up of fees paid by passengers themselves to maintain and enhance airport runways and taxiways. How this money will eventually be reimbursed was not mentioned.)

Members of Congress passed the legislation on Friday just before leaving for a week-long recess, with many of them travelling back to their home districts by plane. It seems nothing is as effective in getting Congress to act as having the members experience the pain of sequestration themselves.

Unfortunately there are many people who will continue to feel the pain of sequestration without the members of Congress taking notice. This includes thousands of Medicare patients who are being turned away from cancer treatments due to rationing of services under the sequester.

An op-ed piece in The New York Times last week poignantly noted,

medium_newheadYou don’t see any Republican hashtags blaming the president for cutting housing vouchers to 140,000 low-income families, which has begun. These vouchers are given by cities to families on the brink of homelessness, and about half of them go to families with children.

There aren’t any angry tweets about the 70,000 Head Start slots about to be eliminated, which is forcing some school districts to distribute these valuable services by lottery. Or about the cuts to Vista, which is hurting the program that performs antipoverty work in many states. Or the 11 percent cut in unemployment benefits for millions of jobless workers.

The voiceless people who are the most affected by these cuts can’t afford high-priced lobbyists to get them an exception to the sequester, the way that the agriculture lobby was able to fend off a furlough to meat inspectors, which might have disrupted beef and poultry operations. And what was cut in order to keep those inspectors on the job? About $25 million from a program to provide free school breakfasts.

ThistlethwaiteSusan_bioSusan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary, pushes the argument even further. She calls this preferential “fix” of some areas to the neglect of others a moral catastrophe. Writing in the “On Faith” column in The Washington Post last weekend, she says,

Imagine you are taking a Christian ethics class, and as your professor I give you this multiple-choice question on a quiz: “Which is more ethical: A) turn away cancer patients from needed chemotherapy treatment, or B) decrease airport delays for the flying public?”

If you answered “B” you would get an “F” on the quiz. …  Last week, however, Congress chose “B” and got a good grade from the flying public, i.e. wealthier Americans, for being unfair in reversing only a small part of the economic pain caused by the sequester, while leaving the rest of the cuts in place.

Congress has seen fit to repeal just part of the sequester, the part that affects them, long lines at airports, and their wealthier constituents who fly a lot. But they chose to leave unaddressed the truly morally repugnant results of the sequester such as denying chemotherapy to Medicare patients at some cancer clinics.

She continues,

That isn’t really even an ethical dilemma. … There is no choice at this point, when the worst effects of these mindless, across-the-board cuts are falling on the sick, the young, the hungry, the pregnant, and the elderly, and the slim cuts that affect members of Congress directly, or their donor constituents, are being repealed.

Ultimately, the sequester and how to handle it is not merely a financial issue but a moral one.

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About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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