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Editorial: Sequester would be less stupid if managers were allowed to manage

Mar. 17, 2013 - 01:35PM   |  
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It should be considered a given by now that the sequester is an epic failure by Congress and the White House and both branches are to blame for making a mess out of the federal budget.

And so, here we are.

Agencies are planning for mass furloughs — at least 1.1 million feds by Federal Times’ count — and other dire cutbacks that all carry costly implications.

For federal managers, this is a nightmare. They must apply budget cuts across the board — roughly 8 percent for defense programs and 5 percent for non-defense programs — with little authority to apply judgment, expertise or common sense.

While the sequester’s impact — $85 billion — represents a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget, the impact will be outsized given that a half year is already behind us and because the cuts are indiscriminate.

Government programs that cater to public safety, health, the poor and elderly and the environment will be hobbled. Entire departments — as in the case of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Housing and Urban Development Department — will close for numerous days.

What federal managers need most is for their national political leaders to strike a long-term deficit-cutting deal that will avert the remainder of the sequester.

Until that happens, they need the authority to meet their budget bottom line by making the cuts where they see fit; to be able to prioritize spending in a way that maximizes agency efficiency and minimizes the pain. In short, managers need to be allowed to manage. They know best how to do the least harm as they find ways to meet the sequester’s mandates.

They also need lawmakers to recognize where the sequester’s cuts will be most harmful and make needed adjustments.

Some lawmakers appear to get that. Both the House and Senate versions of a bill to continue federal funding for the remainder of the year include provisions that would make selective plus-ups in critical areas. both bills would, for example, make additions of more than $10 billion to military operations and maintenance to protect readiness. Those funds will come from other accounts, such as military construction, that are considered a lower priority.

The Senate bill would add $300 million more than last year to the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection to help reduce the scale of furloughs there. Similarly, both bills likely will add money to the FBI to do the same.

Congress aims to complete work on the 2013 spending bill this week before adjourning for the Easter-Passover holiday recess. As lawmakers do that, they must extend to managers the ability to truly manage the mandated cuts. That would ensure a far better outcome than the current sequester plan, which shackles the agency leaders whose expertise and experience would be invaluable in this budgetary crisis.

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