Robinson: Obama needs to stop wobbling and start saying 'no'
President 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.
A veto would have allowed Republicans to claim that the president was gratuitously making the American people suffer so he could score political points. But the gratuitous harm was done long ago when both sides agreed to this whole sequestration nonsense. It is truly absurd that our highest elected officials would agree to impose measures that they knew were not in the public interest. But that's what they did, and all who had a hand in making this uncomfortable bed should be forced to lie in it.
By agreeing to keep the planes flying on time, Obama keeps public opinion on his side, which should be an asset. But I see no indication that the Republican Party really cares what the public thinks.
About 90 percent of Americans support near-universal background checks for gun purchases, according to polls, but that legislation - a modest reaction to the horror of Newtown - couldn't even make it out of the Senate, thanks mostly to GOP opposition. Even prospects for immigration reform, which is clearly in the Republican Party's interest, are uncertain in the House. At the moment, the typical Republican officeholder cares more about avoiding a primary challenge from the Looney-Tunes right than doing what the public wants and needs.
Looking and sounding like the one reasonable man on a ship of fools is good for Obama's political standing, I suppose. But he's no longer running for anything. Somehow, he has to govern until January 2017. In his quest to find a way to work with a hostile Congress, he might consider trying something new.
The next time Congress tries to undo one of the sequestration cuts, Obama should just say no. Let the Republicans jump up and down and call him names. Tell them to sit down and negotiate a proper budget deal, even a grand bargain - or else live with the pain.
The president should find that forgotten veto pen. And he should use it.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.