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Congress seeks answers on sequestration

Mar. 19, 2013 - 11:18AM   |  
By GREGORY KORTE   |   Comments
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, chairman of chairman of a subcommittee on the federal workforce, wants to know why "agency heads have opted for employee furloughs instead of finding other ways."
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, chairman of chairman of a subcommittee on the federal workforce, wants to know why "agency heads have opted for employee furloughs instead of finding other ways." (Blake Farenthold for Congress)

Congressional Republicans are preparing to grill federal officials about why agencies were slow to develop plans for across-the-board budget cuts enacted in 2011 and whether they could have done more to avoid the unpaid leave federal workers may face because of those cuts.

Top budget-making officials from the Agriculture and Commerce departments and the Federal Communications Commission are scheduled to testify at a Tuesday subcommittee hearing. The panel wants to know why the three agencies are implementing the budget cuts — known as sequestration — differently.

The hearing comes in the context of a broader effort to pressure President Obama to negotiate a replacement for the budget cuts on Republican terms. “We’re also exercising House oversight power to highlight waste, expose phony claims and keep pressure on the Obama administration to replace the sequester with smart cuts, not tax hikes,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote in a column over the weekend.

Agriculture has come under particular scrutiny because the cuts could impact food inspections. The department sent a notice to the union representing food inspectors March 8, outlining how 6,351 Food Safety and Inspection Service workers would be furloughed.

“It seems that many agency heads have opted for employee furloughs instead of finding other ways, like eliminating wasteful or duplicative programs, to generate needed savings,” said a statement Monday from Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, chairman of a subcommittee on the federal workforce.

The Obama administration, however, says its hands were largely tied: The law requires that each “program, project and activity” be cut equally.

“There are some circumstances — and we’ve talked a lot about the meat inspection — where we do not have that flexibility because there’s so few accounts,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee this month. His budget director, Michael Young, testifies Tuesday.

The FCC spends 72 percent of its budget on staff salaries, with rent, utilities and long-term contracts taking an additional 23 percent. “That means roughly 95 percent of our budget is committed to expenditures that are difficult to change quickly, leaving us with limited options from which to address these cuts,” FCC Managing Director David Robbins said in draft testimony provided to the committee.

The 2011 Budget Control Act required across-the-board budget cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years if Congress failed to reach deeper cuts through a bipartisan supercommittee. The committee failed, and so the first round of automatic cuts — $85 billion — went into effect March 1.

House Republicans are already peeved that they had to reschedule the hearing from last week because agencies weren’t ready to discuss their sequestration plans. “The American people have heard one dire warning after another about the impact of the sequester on their lives. Yet, when it comes to accountability and answering simple questions about what agencies are doing with the American people’s money, they throw up one roadblock after another,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of one of the two subcommittees hosting the hearing.

Gregory Korte reports for USA Today.

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