LaHood Seeks to Convince ‘People in My Own Party’ to Avoid Air Travel ‘Calamity’

By Fred Lucas | February 22, 2013 | 3:20 PM EST

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on combating distracted driving. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

( – Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Houser Republican, said the Obama administration hopes he can influence fellow members of the GOP to stop the sequester that he said would lead to “calamity” of flight delays in areas that include districts for House Republicans.

“I would describe my presence here in one word – Republican,” LaHood said from the White House Friday while taking questions from reporters. “They’re hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party. This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because a lot of people, common ordinary citizens fly. And this is going to have a real impact.”

Sequestration is the term used to describe the automatic $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that will occur on March 1 if Congress doesn’t take action. It was enacted as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 that President Obama signed. According to Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics,” the sequester was the administration’s idea.

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For the Department of Transportation, that would mean a $1 billion less to spend than initially budgeted out of an overall annual budget of $70 billion, LaHood said.

“What I’m trying to do is to wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side to the idea that they need to come to the table, offer a proposal, so that we don’t have to have this kind of calamity in air service in America,” LaHood said.

LaHood was elected with the Republican class of 1994, when the GOP took the House for the first time in four decades. The moderate-to-liberal Republican served until 2009 when Obama nominated him to his cabinet.

LaHood said Friday that when flights are delayed, Republican members of Congress will hear from their constituents.

“My phones will ring from members of Congress asking why is my control tower being closed?” LaHood said.

But Republicans have already passed legislation to stop the sequester from happening, said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

“Since he apparently missed it, he should check out H.R. 5652 – The Sequester Replacement Act – which is chock-full of Republican ideas,” Steel said in a written statement.

“It was written by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (a Republican), and passed the House of Representatives on May 10, 2012. He can also take a look at H.R. 6684, The Spending Reduction Act of 2012, which was sponsored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (a Republican), and ALSO filled to the brim with crackerjack Republican ideas. It passed on December 20, 2012,” Steel added.

LaHood explained that the budget adjustments from the sequester meant a reduced number of air traffic controllers, which would reduce the government’s ability to guide planes in and out of airports. This would likely mean fewer flights – leading to cancellations and delays.

One reporter asked LaHood why $1 billion will have such an impact on a $70 billion budget. “Help the public understand, a billion dollar cut. You’ve got a big budget. Is there some other way to cut that without telling air traffic controllers to stay home?”

“Well, we’re doing that. We’re looking at every contract, and our lawyers are looking at every contract and penalties we would have to pay as we begin to cut or adjust the contracts,” LaHood responded. “We’re looking at everything possible. Everything possible that’s legal, we will do, but this has to be a part of it.

“DOT has 55,000 employees. The largest number of those employees are at the FAA and the largest number of those employees are controllers, and they are all over the country. There has to be some impact in order to save $1 billion. A billion is a lot of money,” LaHood added.

The reporter followed, “It’s less than 2 percent of your budget.”

LaHood responded, “Where I come from, which is central Illinois, $1 billion is a lot of money. And it’s very difficult when you have the number of employees that we have guiding planes in and out of airports to do anything except look at everything.”