Feeding the nation’s poor and elderly is apparently not as important as your flight being on time—at least in Congress’ eyes.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week agreed to forgo furloughs for air traffic controllers after thousands of flights were delayed due to budget cuts following the sequester.
The air travel bill, which moved quickly up the chain of command in a Congress known for its gridlock, is coming under scrutiny for leaving less visible, poorer constituents and organizations that represent them behind. That includes Meals on Wheels, the partially government-subsidized program that delivers hot meals to the elderly and the infirm.
“We are challenged…The sequester is hurting in a big, big way,” Vinsen Faris, chairman of the board of directors of Meals on Wheels told Hardball on Wednesday night.
The White House has said the cuts would mean about 4 million fewer meals for seniors this year alone.
Faris added, “We are slowly putting people on the waiting list. We are reducing the numbers of the days they get the friendly knock on the door with a hot meal in hand.” He said the program serves over one million meals a day and has about 2.5 million volunteers who help deliver them. Oftentimes, the meal is the only one recipients eat all day, Faris noted.
It’s not just Meals on Wheels that's suffering because of the sequester. Teacher positions were cuts, and funding was slashed for thousands of first responders in local communities, public housing assistance programs, special education, and the Head Start program that helps preschool children from low-income families.
As soon as Congress is inconvenienced, they act, said Hardball host Chris Matthews, pointing to the recent Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013. “But when it comes to the vulnerable in society who depend on many of the programs hurt by the sequester cuts, well, that’s not so urgent.”
The sequester—a package of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts—was enacted earlier this year after Congress was unable to reach a compromise to reduce the country’s deficit. The idea was to put pressure on both sides, with Republicans taking a hit on defense cuts and Dems agreeing to cut safety net programs they have long touted.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to struggle to pass a 2014 budget. Last month, President Obama unveiled a $3.8 trillion spending plan, which would raise taxes on the wealthy in exchange for cutting back on benefit programs like Social Security. Both parties have their complaints: The GOP is upset by higher taxes and Democrats are angry about cuts to Social Security.
“Six months later, the Republicans say, you know what, if it’s between Pentagon cuts or protecting tax breaks for the rich, we’ll go with tax breaks for the rich,” David Corn of Mother Jones told Hardball.
Corn added that cutting funds to programs like Meals on Wheels will have spillover effects.
“When you start cutting this off, that means elderly people don’t get their nutrition and their health care decreases and you pay for that,” he said.
Earlier this week, Obama pressed Congress to lift the sequester.
“It’s damaging our economy. It’s hurting our people,” he said. "So despite the fact that a lot of members of Congress were suggesting that somehow the sequester was a victory for them and that this wouldn’t hurt the economy, what we now know is that what I warned earlier….It’s slowed our growth, it’s resulting in people being thrown out of work, and it’s hurting folks all across the country.”