“So, to be clear, I largely favor reducing the power of the very federal government being discussed in this piece, but that is quite different from arguing that, at its current scope and scale, it is somehow incapable of addressing multiple priorities at once.”
n March 13th, Reuters and other outlets reported that the Biden administration was continuing its efforts to combat certain airline fees that it has singled out as excessive. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, to this point, wrote a letter to lawmakers encouraging Congress to take up legislation to bar airlines from charging additional fees to families traveling with children under the age of 13 when an open, adjacent seat is already available. This comes just over a month after President Joe Biden took time during the State of the Union to reiterate his administration’s opposition to “junk fees, those hidden surcharges too many companies use to make you pay more,” drawing attention to such fees in air travel in particular. President Biden, in apparent recognition of the realities now imposed by a divided government following the midterm elections, has shown a desire to pursue bipartisan initiatives aimed at helping the average American consumer, in a move that NBC’s Chuck Todd has called “Bill Clinton-esque.”
In response, many critics have articulated some version of: At a time when there are crises in Ukraine, with immigration, inflation, and given growing economic precarity, the Biden administration should be focused on more pressing matters. As Andrea Catsimatidis, Chair of the Manhattan Republican Party, put it, “How about Biden talking about airline fees and resort fees because things are so bad in America right now that he can’t talk about the real issues in America right now.” This view was echoed by former National Republican Senatorial Committee senior advisor Matt Whitlock, who tweeted: “Real estate within a State of the Union address is INCREDIBLY valuable. There are tons of issues left on the cutting room floor./But Biden spent time on resort fees, airline tickets, and fast food workers non-competes.” [Emphasis original]
While it is surely true that the situation in Ukraine or at the Southern (and now Northern) border is more acute and consequential than comparatively minor concerns about airline fees, it is important to remember that a given presidential administration, in whose purview includes nearly every crisis in the world, is always facing issues on my fronts. And, second, a large federal bureaucracy and a more than amply staffed House of Representatives and Senate are capable of (and must be demanded to be capable of) addressing many crises or issues at any given time.
To this latter point, according to Legistorm, during the current 118 Congress, the United States Senate employs 6,898 staffers, and the House of Representatives employs 9,598 staffers. The Department of Transportation, the executive agency tasked by President Biden with working with Congress on this issue of airline fees, employs approximately 55,000 people. With this number of employees, an agency such as the Department of Transportation ought to be able to address a number of issues, from continuing to work to reduce the number of airplane crashes to honing its National Roadway Safety Strategy to determining whether or not it is reasonable to recommend congressional action on fees it argues are predatory.
Furthermore, at a time when members of Congress such as Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) are currently lending support to H. R. 139, which demands an end to federal employees working remotely due to concerns about diminished productivity, we should be expecting those in the employ of the United States of America to be working assiduously on issues both large and small. Perhaps demanding this can make a dent in the perception (often accurate) that, as one friend of mine employed in the public sector, would always make clear: “I’m no government worker. I’m a government employee.”
Now, it is surely the case that certain issues attract a greater number of headlines than others (and, in some cases, this is precisely how it should be), but countless matters, many of which can reasonably be classified as vital, are addressed during any presidential administration or session of Congress. In a previous piece, for instance, I pointed to former President Donald Trump’s cooperation with Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a steadfast Democratic critic of President Trump’s, on The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act aimed at combating the discharge of plastic debris into the oceans. Similarly, during the spring and summer of 2019, a divided Congress was able to pass a bill that was signed into law seeking to combat suicide among law enforcement officers, notwithstanding the fact that the Trump administration was obviously also working on other priorities, from reducing the threat of a nuclear North Korea to handling increased tensions with Iran.
This is related to a point I have made in the past: A given presidential administration, which through its sheer power and influence can shape or seek to address nearly any issue, can be judged in near-infinite ways based on its actions or inactions. Might we consider President Bill Clinton a failure for his Justice Department’s handling of the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas paired with insufficient effort on the part of his administration in the face of a burgeoning genocide in Rwanda in early 1994? Or, viewed from another lens, might his presidency be considered successful for his collaboration with congressional Republicans on legislation such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, as well as presiding over a period of relative economic prosperity? Similarly, while President George W. Bush can rightfully be condemned for the invasion of Iraq and his administration’s misleading of the American public in order to justify it and the casualties that followed, he is regarded as a hero in many parts of Africa due to the priority his administration placed on combating HIV and by the pro-life movement for signing into law the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. (1) Indeed, any presidential administration and the federal bureaucracy it leads can be judged on a variety of metrics since the powers they hold are so numerous and wide-ranging. (2) But clearly implicit in all of this is that the federal government is more than capable (and must be capable of) of pursuing numerous objectives at any given time.
Following George F. Will, I have long been sensitive to the argument that the most fitting solution to many of our current ills emanating from Washington, D.C. is to reduce the scope and scale of what the federal government does and is responsible for. So, to be clear, I largely favor reducing the power of the very federal government being discussed in this piece, but that is quite different from arguing that, at its current scope and scale, it is somehow incapable of addressing multiple priorities at once. (3) Furthermore, none of this is meant specifically to endorse the Biden administration’s proposal, which seems more than anything to have been put forward due to its potential popularity rather than on its merits. If anything, we should err on the side of granting private companies, particularly in an industry as historically unprofitable as that of airlines, to offer the pricing that they wish. But departing from Catsimatidis and Whitlock, it seems clear that the executive agencies and the United States Congress are more than capable of pursuing numerous priorities at once.
Erich J. Prince is editor-in-chief emeritus at Merion West.
- Although I tend to argue that the invasion of Iraq was the preeminent American foreign policy failure of the last half-century at least, I look forward to speaking soon for a Merion West discussion with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who grew up in Iraq during the invasion and views the war as “good and necessary” and “a victory for freedom and human rights.”
- There have been various efforts to quantify the successes and failures of a given presidential administration. Among the most interesting, at first glance, is that of Al Carroll’s. In 2014, he published a book titled Presidents’ Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions; though conceptually interesting, this thesis is found to be lacking upon closer examination.
- This is also distinct from an argument found in Milton Friedman’s 1990 book Free to Choose, which was co-written with his wife Rose Friedman. In it, the authors appreciate that there is always an unlimited number of good causes to support with taxpayer dollars. Given the reality of scarcity, it is necessary when it comes to budgeting for legislators to duke it out as to which causes are the most deserving of limited resources.