CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
July 13, 2012 – 9:38 p.m.
Unease Grows Over Sequester’s Effect
By Kerry Young, CQ Staff
Lawmakers in both parties are increasing the pressure on the Obama administration to spell out how federal agencies would implement automatic, across-the-board spending cuts at the start of next year. But the deeply partisan divide on economic issues suggests there’s little chance that Congress will act to head off the sequester.
The push for more information comes amid a growing outcry from Congress and from groups that would be affected by the impact of the $109 billion in spending cuts. The alarms have spread from the defense world to advocates of domestic programs, who warn that public safety, law enforcement, education and other areas would be affected by the blunt and sudden cutbacks scheduled to hit on Jan. 2.
The Obama administration has so far instructed agencies to prepare budget requests for fiscal 2013 as if the sequester would be averted, and lawmakers for months made do largely with general observations of its potential impact.
But the House on July 18 will vote on a bill that demands from the White House a detailed description of the plans for implementing the spending cuts at federal agencies, in both domestic and defense programs. That follows the adoption of a measure in the Senate calling for even more detailed reports from agencies, reports that would include assessments of the impact of the cuts in areas such as food inspections and social welfare programs.
“Congress does not yet have an accurate understanding of the implications of sequester beyond an assertion that the cuts would be devastating, which is the word used by the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, and nearly every other defense official we have queried,”
House defense authorizers have scheduled an Aug. 1 hearing with two senior Obama administration officials to discuss the estimated $54 billion in cuts the Pentagon faces under sequester.
GOP Seeks ‘Common-Sense Savings’
Republican congressional leaders wrote to President Obama on July 13, calling on him to seek “common-sense savings” to replace the sequester. The reductions under the sequester would be replaced by those savings on spending and would not include “tax increase proposals that face bipartisan congressional opposition,” said the letter from Senate Minority Leader
There’s virtually universal agreement in Congress that lawmakers must revise the sequester, but there’s no agreement between Republicans and Democrats on how to do that. That’s why there’s broad agreement that Congress will not act to head off the sequester, a kind of budget doomsday device built into the 2011 debt-limit law (PL 112-25), until after the November elections.
“Both sides agree that sequestration is a terrible way to cut spending, on both the defense and non-defense sides,” said
There has been bipartisan cooperation on attempts to compel the Office of Management and Budget to release detailed information on how the cuts under the sequester would be distributed across agencies and programs, but it’s unclear whether Congress will soon clear a law carrying such a demand.
McCain worked with Murray to add a requirement for a sequester report to the Senate’s farm bill (
Unease Grows Over Sequester’s Effect
And although the House on Wednesday is likely to pass a bill demanding a sequester report, it’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader
The procedural hurdles and the calendar mean that there is little likelihood that Congress would demand and then get a detailed report on the implementation plans for the sequester before the start of the next fiscal year, Oct. 1. The House and Senate measures ask for reports within 30 days.
‘Waiting for a “Better” Proposal’?
But the political hurdles to heading off the cuts appear to be even higher.
Reid and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee scrapped publicly over the sequester in recent days, and both sides appeared entrenched in positions.
“News reports indicate that you are waiting for a ‘better’ proposal,” the GOP authorizers wrote in a June 4 letter to Reid. “If you have a solution in mind, it is incumbent upon you to bring it to the floor of your own chamber, pass it, and allow us to move to conference.”
In his reply, released to reporters, Reid said he is “convinced” that in time there will be a bipartisan compromise to head off the sequester but said it must include new tax revenue. “Given your concern about sequestration, I would encourage you to focus your energy on convincing Republicans that forging a balanced compromise that protects the middle class is more important than adhering to the tea party’s rigid, extreme ideology,” Reid wrote.
Even with this stalemate, the White House has not yet directed agencies to begin to factor into their fiscal 2013 budgets the chance of deep budget cuts. Instead, the Obama administration has tried to prod Congress into coming up with a legislative fix.
Jeff Zients, acting director of OMB, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, who earlier was the Pentagon’s chief for acquisition, technology and logistics, will appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Aug. 1 to discuss the potential impact of the sequester.
Carter’s “going to be very straightforward about what the potential effects of sequestration might be,” said DOD spokesman Gregory Little at a news conference last week. “The deputy will be prepared to have a very robust dialogue.”