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With sequestration, pain for all

Aug. 4, 2012 - 11:54AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Air traffic control services could be cut under any sequestration plan. Above, the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.
Air traffic control services could be cut under any sequestration plan. Above, the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

The $109 billion in sequestration budget cuts scheduled to go into effect Jan. 2 would likely mean hiring freezes, furloughs and staffing reductions at the Defense Department, FBI, Border Patrol and Transportation Security Administration, the Obama administration said this week.

It could also mean:

• 2 million jobs lost nationwide, including 270,000 federal jobs.

• A near-doubling of the Social Security Administration’s pending disability insurance claims backlog.

• Significant cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to ensure safe air travel, and slashed food safety and workplace safety inspections.

• Delayed Defense construction projects.

• Partial or full closure of numerous national parks.

• Severe cuts to National Weather Service forecasting.

Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that sequestration is a disastrous, chaotic policy — one that was designed to be so onerous that Congress would have no choice but to compromise and find a way to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion. But a so-called supercommittee failed to reach an agreement last November, setting the government on a path toward the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts.

Sequestration “is a policy that should never be implemented,” Carter said. “It introduces senseless chaos into the management of more than 2,500 defense investment programs, waste into defense spending at the very time we need to be careful with the taxpayer’s dollar, inefficiency into the defense industry that supports us, and causes lasting disruptions even if it only extends for one year.”

Zients repeatedly urged Congress to find a way — in the next five months — to pass a balanced deficit reduction plan and avert the sequestration cuts.

Until last week, the administration had taken no public steps to prepare for implementing sequestration. Zients and Carter told lawmakers that even preparing for it would divert scarce resources from other important duties, and would disrupt the federal workplace.

“We do not want to unnecessarily alarm our employees by announcing adverse personnel actions or by suggesting that such actions are likely,” Carter said. “We do not want to hold back on the obligation of funds — either for weapon projects or operating programs — that would have been obligated in the absence of a possible sequester, since this would introduce inefficiency and waste. Nor do we want to cut back on training, which would harm military readiness.”

But Zients issued a memo Tuesday that said OMB will start talking to agency leaders about how sequestration will be implemented over the next few months. OMB and agencies will first work out how exemptions will be applied and other reporting requirements. Later this year, OMB and agencies will start working out the details, such as exactly how much will be cut and where.

Zients said he cannot prepare specific details about how the cuts might be allocated until Congress passes a budget for fiscal 2013. But he told lawmakers defense discretionary spending would likely be cut 10 percent — assuming uniformed service members are exempted — and non-defense spending would be cut about 8 percent.

And since those cuts will go into effect one-quarter of the way through fiscal 2013, agencies would have to cram a full year’s worth of cuts into nine months.

Sequestration would “also undermine basic services that Americans expect from their government,” Zients said. For example, he said, the National Weather Service could face system outages and delayed upgrades in critical forecasting systems, harming the government’s ability to predict droughts, hurricanes or tornadoes.

Carter said furloughs and cuts to Defense civilian personnel — including layoffs of temporary employees — would mean “fewer people to fix our weapons — including those damaged in war — less expert time and attention available to enter into well-crafted contracts and handle financial transactions, and less support for other critical day-to-day operations.”

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee on readiness, estimated last month that sequestration could cost 89,000 Defense civilians their jobs. Zients and Carter would not comment on that estimate last week.

But other parts of the government are trying to take stock of how sequestration would affect the government.

A congressional report requested by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, last month predicted SSA would have to furlough its entire 65,000-employee workforce for about six weeks next year. Its staff would shrink by about 5,000 employees through attrition and the loss of temporary staff, the report said.

The Harkin report said about 15,000 state Disability Determination Service employees — who make initial determinations on applications for federal disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income — would also be furloughed.

This is likely to drive the average processing time for applications up from 111 to 180 days, and nearly double the disability claims backlog from 861,000 this year to almost 1.5 million by the end of fiscal 2013.

Labor last week also ordered federal contractors to not send their employees layoff notices before sequestration takes effect. Some contractors have said they may issue layoff notices as early as Nov. 2 — four days before Election Day — to comply with a law requiring contractors to give employees 60 days’ notice before mass layoffs or facility closings.

Assistant Labor Secretary Jane Oates said that since agencies have not yet identified what programs will be cut or how deeply, companies do not know what plants will be closed or how many people will have to be laid off.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., called Labor’s guidance politically motivated. He said people will still be laid off, but will have less notice to protect themselves.

While members of both parties agree that sequestration is bad policy and would likely hamstring large parts of the government, Congress appears unlikely to do anything about it. Last week’s hearing to examine sequestration’s effects descended into partisan squabbling.

McKeon said that Congress has about two legislative work weeks left before lawmakers leave for the election, and the prospects of getting serious work done in the post-election lame-duck session are slim.

“I am frustrated with that,” McKeon said. “We have a responsibility to fix this. I’m just not very optimistic at how we’re going to go about that.”

Zients told lawmakers that “it is the job of everybody here to ensure that we never get to” the sequestration cuts. But Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, also appeared pessimistic about Congress’ ability to compromise.

“Our track record isn’t that good here,” Reyes said.

And toward the end of the hearing, Republican lawmakers and Zients began pointing fingers and accusing the opposing party of being responsible for the sequestration mess.

“The root cause of the problem here is the Republicans’ refusal to ask the top 2 percent [of taxpayers] to pay their fair share,” Zients said as Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., talked over him.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, rapped Zients for criticizing Republicans.

“I want to commend you on the broken record of your partisanship, with respect to the fiction that this administration has a budget or a plan” for deficit reduction, Turner said. “You have no plan. We’re in ust; there is not one thing on the table that we could pick up that has the support of the House or the Senate that could solve this problem that comes from the president.”

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