We know that across-the-board sequestration cuts, if carried out, will have a devastating impact on many federal employees, contractors and programs, and the citizens they serve. The cuts for 2013 would total $109 billion and take effect Jan. 2, and they will occur if Congress is unwilling or unable to strike a long-term budget deal by then.
We still do not know precisely how those cuts would affect federal programs. A report released Sept. 14 by the Obama administration on this matter was disappointing — it tells how deeply, in percentage terms, specific budget accounts would be hit, but says nothing about how those cuts would be absorbed or what the impact would be.
This is precisely the information the American public and Congress need to know as Congress flirts with disaster.
Incredibly, the Office of Management and Budget is telling agencies to proceed with “normal spending and operations” and promises further guidance only “if necessary.”
The White House’s reluctance to tell the world how sequestration cuts will be handled is only somewhat understandable: Once it details which employees, contractors and activities are more expendable than others, lawmakers will get ideas about making such cuts permanent. But that is precisely what Congress and the administration should be doing — making tough decisions about spending priorities.
Telling federal managers to simply ignore the elephant in the room is irresponsible. The government is too big and complex to leave all this to the last possible minute.
Leaders need to lay plans for how they will implement the cuts, which programs or departments or people are exempt and which will feel the greatest brunt. Absent those plans, agencies — and their suppliers in industry — are likely to freeze, unable to make key program decisions affecting hiring, leases, contracts and more.
Politics and the looming election are at the root of this, however, and why no real answers will be clear until after polls close Nov. 6. The Obama administration is unwilling to show its hand, knowing the Romney campaign will leap on any unpopular reduction as an example of the president’s real agenda. Likewise, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would just as soon sidestep the specifics until after ballots are cast.
Still, it is essential that within each agency and department, leaders lay out plans for coping with these cuts and work through their options now, rather than in December as the clock winds down.
Likewise, lawmakers and their staffs should be working hard in the background on the framework for a deal to be negotiated in the post-election lame-duck session.
Sequestration is not a solution. It was a threat, one deemed frightening enough to both parties to ensure that it would force some compromise before it took effect. Allowing sequestration to hack the budget with a meat ax must be looked at in that light: It would be an abject failure on the part of Congress.
For those members of Congress who view compromise as a dirty word, you are the problem here. Your country needs you to either step aside or be part of the solution.