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Our Government: By the Wealthy, For the Wealthy

» Congress’ willingness to address the sequester, but only for the Federal Aviation Administration, is a disgusting sort of bipartisan agreement.

The sequester, which went into effect at the beginning of last month, cut more than $85 billion from the federal budget for this year alone. Its cuts, whose impacts will continued to be felt through 2021, were disproportionately focused on domestic programs. Public transportation, for instance, was dramatically affected: Almost $600 million was cut from funding directed towards mitigating the effects of Hurricane Sandy; another $104 million was cut from capital investment grants that fund new train and bus lines; Amtrak lost $80 million.

Other cuts, such as those to the nation’s affordable housing, Head Start, schools, and meals for seniors, are even more devastating for the nation’s least well-off.

Congress, however, has been incapable of addressing the issue, allowing the cuts to these essential programs to reinforce America’s growing concentration of wealth, low tax rates for the wealthy, and limited social welfare aid. Austerity, which is the intellectual justification supporting these cuts to federal spending, has been shown to only encourage economic stagnation — and often do so at the expense of the least well-off. Yet the national legislature has, as if in complete disinterest, sat idly by as the cuts set in.

That is, until it became obvious that the sequester was affecting the performance of the Congressional elite’s favorite program: Federal support for air travel. Congresspeople, apparently, just couldn’t support having their flights delayed.

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that allows the Federal Aviation Administration to transfer up to $253 million towards the air traffic control system in order to prevent furloughs that had begun this week. This morning, a large majority of House members agreed to the bill, with only a small group of mostly left-slanting Democrats opposed.

The swift and bipartisan response to the problem of slowed air travel leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. While the bill did not approve new funds to the FAA, it effectively forced the agency to shift funds around in a way to ensure that Congresspeople (and admittedly, all American air travelers) could get around the country more quickly.

There of course has been no similar rush to, for instance, shift funds away from the subsidies provided to the oil industry to support mass transit, or to shift funds away from the mortgage interest tax deduction to support affordable housing. Why? Because the Congress, in this quick response to a national problem, has shown itself to be completely concerned with government issues that affect the nation’s wealthy but unaffected by a loss of government aid to the poor. Democrats, who might have used this situation to argue for restoring essential funds for social programs, simply abdicated responsibility, mostly choosing to vote in line with the GOP here.

Federal aid to air travel has its merits, of course. But we must put in question why keeping it functional while ignoring the plight of the poor makes any sort of policy sense.

After all, air travel is largely the domain of the upper middle class and wealthy. A recent interview of U.S. residents at LAX, for example, showed that 72% of travelers who agreed to state their levels of income were making more than the U.S. median household income. Low-income people are far less likely to travel by plane than the wealthy.

Yet the federal government continues to subsidize air travel at record rates. According to the GAO, for example, air travel security provided by the TSA, which cost upward of $9 billion in 2011, has been more than 70% subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in recent years. Passengers and air carriers only commit 30% or so of the costs.

These policies amount to a shift of wealth upwards. Meanwhile, members of the House and Senate continue to fantasize about ways to further cut public transportation.

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • david vartanoff

    the purpose of our government is to extort taxes from the productive workers and re distribute the money to the bribing elite. Not what we were taught in Civics but the operative reality.

  • Chris

    There are plenty of non-wealthy air travelers, so I can’t agree with the article above. I fly one round-trip every three or so weeks and most air travelers are people who travel a lot for work, together with a mix of middle-income and upper-income people, and a few lower-middle income people added in.

    I would encourage you not to equate support for public transportation with left-wing politics, too; making Amtrak and transit into partisan issues won’t help them.

    • nbluth

      How can public transportation not be a partisan issue when Republicans have almost no electoral support in places which rely on transportation the most? The Republican governor of Florida canceled a fully-funded high-speed rail line for no other reason than that it was supported by Obama.

      • nbluth

        That should be ‘rely on *public* transportation the most’

        • Chris

          Turning Amtrak and transit into partisan issues will ensure that all parts of government under GOP control (most state governments, the House, etc.) will stop supporting Amtrak and transit. That will be very harmful. The US is not a one-party country, and making progress on transportation issues requires the involvement of both parties, however much pro-Amtrak and pro-transit Democrats hate Republicans.

          There are plenty of Republicans, such as Virginia’s governor, who have been on the leading edge of advances in public transportation. There is no need to drive them off.

          • nbluth

            Only on planet Cato could McDonnell possibly be considered on the ‘leading edge’ of public transportation.
            -Proposed replacing the user-fee oriented gas tax with a regressive sales tax.
            -Spent billions and billions on pet highway expansion projects that solely benefit coal and trucking companies that happen have been major contributors to his campaign (Coalfields Expressway, 460 expansion) yet funded no new public transit projects
            -Pushing for an outer beltway that would open up thousands of acres of undeveloped land to car-centric suburban sprawl.
            -Tried to pull Metro funding if he didn’t get disproportionate state-level representation on the Metro board.
            So I ask again, besides not actively canceling any in-progress projects (ie the Silver Line & Tide LR), can you name a single thing McDonnell has done to promote public transportation, let alone put him on the ‘leading edge’?

            • Chris

              McConnell has significantly expanded Amtrak service in Virginia.

              • Jim

                One train per day has been extended a bit over a hundred miles. Significant?

              • Chris

                Jim, as you know, McConnell and the GOP legislature played key roles in the Lynchburg and the new Norfolk trains, both of which are to have multiple frequencies.

                McConnell has also been very supportive of Norfolk’s light rail line.

              • nbluth

                Expanding service on an existing freight-rail-shared ROW that is popular enough to cover its operating expenses is not the ‘leading edge’ of public transportation, it’s taking care of low hanging fruit and being a decent politician (it worked on you, after all).
                Leading edge would be electrifying VRE or HSR to Richmond or spending some of those billions thrown at highway projects that will need subsidies into perpetuity on public transit projects that may not cover their operating costs but have none of the negative externalities of highways and many positive externalities that simply aren’t taken into account when one only looks at revenue vs. expenses.
                He’s done the absolute bare minimum in supporting public transportation, which is certainly preferable to the many other GOP governors who have canceled projects, turned away federal funds, and are generally of the ‘trains are socialism’ mindset. But McDonnell is not on the leading edge of anything except highway expansion and hand-outs to campaign contributors.

              • Chris

                I consider expanding Amtrak in new areas “cutting edge” these days. You may disagree.

                Regardless, running off pro-Amtrak/pro-transit Republicans will ensure that neither mode gets the support that it needs; in Virginia, Republicans dominate state government, and so there would be no growth in either mode without them. The same holds true in NC and other states with growing Amtrak corridor service.

          • Nathanael

            Chris: the problem with what you’re saying is that it isn’t true.

            “There are plenty of Republicans, such as Virginia’s governor, who have been on the leading edge of advances in public transportation. There is no need to drive them off.”

            Yes, there is Virginia’s governor. That’s one man. That does not count as “plenty of Republicans”. I’ll spot you the governor of Michigan (Snyder) and Ray LaHood. That’s three Republicans.

            There really aren’t any Republican supporters of public transportation above the state legislature level — those three are IT. There aren’t very many Republican supporters of public transportation AT the state legislature level, either.

            In North Carolina, there used to be bipartisan support for public transportation and passenger rail…. and now there isn’t. The Republicans turned into fanatical anti-train nuts all of a sudden.

            In short, yes, you can find a few Republican elected officials who support public transportation. But they’re one in a million, and there are fewer every year.

            • Adirondacker12800

              They turned into fanatical anti-rail nuts because the people who show up for their primaries are fanatics. I wish New York had open primaries, I could vote for the most bat shit insane Republican and assure that the moderately sane Democrat gets elected in the general.

              • Nathanael

                We had Carl “Horse Porn” Palladino nominated for Governor on the Republican ticket in NY. I think the Republicans here don’t need our help to nominate the most batshit insane candidates possible.

                Also look at the recent election in the Syracuse area where Dan Maffei (D) got about 51% of the vote, trouncing Ann Marie Buerkle (R) *despite a left-wing third-party candidate taking nearly 25% of the vote*. The Republicans are really getting good at nominating lunatics. Eventually voters around here wake up and stop voting for them at all. Apparently voters in NC are still voting for the lunatics, though.

              • Adirondacker12800

                …well… true one doesn’t have to vote in the primary for the Republicans to eat their own young. Look at what happened to Dede Scozzafava. Dede should have been one of those people who get 80% of the vote in the special election for the vacant House seat. Instead the insane voted for the insane candidate on the Conservative line. And the not insane Democrat won the election with a plurality. In the following general election, because the Republicans and the Conservative tried to out-insane each other, the Democrat won with a larger plurality. In places that have been voting Republican since they stopped voting for Whigs. The contours of the distinct changed in the next general because of the Census and he won with a majority. Winning strategy all around don’t you think? Still, it’d be fun if it was Gillibrand versus people-who-are-going-through-the-motions and insane Republican versus might-have-a-chance-if-Gillbrand-is-caught-in-bed-with-a-live-girl-or-a-dead-man.

    • Stu

      Freemark cites a survey showing that 72% of travelers state their income is more than the US median household income, which means upper income people–those earning above the median–are over represented by 44%, and lower income people are conversely underrepresented by the same amount. Chris, what constitutes plenty for you?

      • Chris

        28% of air travelers have incomes below the median. That’s certainly plenty of NON-wealthy air travelers.

        Of the 72% who have incomes above the median, even if half of them are “wealthy”, that still leaves most air travelers as middle income, upper-middle and lower-middle income.

        The truly wealthy fly corporate jets to secondary airports and weren’t really impacted by the recent FAA mess anyhow.

        • JO

          The fact remains that the airlines and oil industries, and highway lobby have congress in their collective pockets; and they are indeed being subsidized. The fact also remains a more balanced transportation and energy policy which high speed rail would play a part would be much more efficient, comfortable, and just more sensible.

          But alas congress will never really institute a program for a balanced transportation policy because they will forever be afraid – hence their idiotic rhetoric and total lack of discourse on the subject.

          Give credit to California for at least trying to build high speed rail. I hope that California finds a way to fund it, because they will not be able to depend on congress; there is no way that they will ever institute a more balanced and sensible transportation and energy policy – they are incapable of it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            45 years ago the people of the Northeast depended on Congress to help fund improving rail. Today’s trains are slower than the very few fastest ones were in 1969.

            • JO

              The northeast corridor should have really been the nations first high speed rail project. And of course the northeast can not depend on the Feds (congress) to get this done. There is really no excuse. This is why the affected northeast states need to form their own high speed rail authority ala California, and demand and attempt to leverage funds from congress. This is the only way it may ever happen.

              • david vartanoff

                JD writes “The northeast corridor should have really been the nations first high speed rail project.” Which is exactly what happened. The original Metroliners were partially Federally funded as were some of the track upgrades. Most of the later track and signalling upgrades also were on the Federal dime. This includes the electrification of the ex New Haven to Boston and the purchase of the Acelas. While much of the money was funneled thru Amtrak, it was still Fed money.

              • Adirondacker12800

                …and we’ve been waiting for the 2 hour service between Washington DC and New York City that we were promised would be available by 1980. And waiting, And waiting. Amtrak estimates that the Federal Government has paid for one third of the upgrades to the NEC and the states have paid the other two thirds.

          • JO

            The point is what is happening now and what will happen in the future in the northeast corridor. Given Washington’s steadfast dysfunction, I am afraid not much. There is an alliance with California and the northeast corridor to cooperate on new trainsets. But there needs to be more; at the very least, I would like to see the alliance for trainsets become much more. That is I would like to see a plan and a timeline for high speed rail on the northeast corridor on par with California’s. The NEC corridor states need to get together in order to shake things up in dysfunctional D.C. The status quo will not do it.

            • Anandakos

              Since the existing NEC infrastructure really can’t be used for California-level HSR without enormous costs for land acquisition in the centers of historic urban areas, the only way to achieve “true HSR” between the five major cities of the corridor is to build something completely new on a greenfield right-of-way.

              And that too will be astronomically expensive, given the sprawl that has engulfed the entire region. It may actually not be possible at any cost.

  • Why didn’t Democrats and Indies hold up the air travel measure for the comprehensive Transportation Bill proposed by Obama to actually fix things?

    As the GAO data indicates, to cave solely on FAA controllers amounts to a budget shift that disproportionately favors the wealthy, while doing nothing to fix our long term transportation problems in Highways, Transit, HSR or even the NextGen air traffic control system. Will someone teach Reid and Pelosi how to negotiate.

  • I should note that LAX is a peculiar place to study the income of air travelers. LAX has 8 separate terminal buildings, each serving a different set of air carriers. The low-cost domestic carriers like Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit are physically separated from the legacy carriers like Delta, American, and United, and there is an entirely separate terminal for international flights. The linked study was conducted at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

    So yeah, I’ll buy that international air travel is the provice of the upper-middle class and the wealthy… but a similar survey at Terminal 1 (Southwest) would probably find very different results.

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