Election-year politics keep sequestration threat alive

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:44 PM

Tom Philpott

Members of Congress are more interested in winning reelection in November than in removing before then the budget “sequestration” knife that threatens to lop 10 percent off 2500 defense programs starting Jan. 2.

That was the signal that lawmakers sent at a House Armed Services Committee hearing this month where the White House budget director and the deputy defense secretary explained how sequestration would shred defense budgets and degrade force readiness if Congress fails to block the process by negotiating a new $1.2 trillion debt-reduction deal.

But the higher priority for committee members, suggested its chairman, is staying in office. That helped to explain the disdain for bipartisanship shown at the hearing, ostensibly called to gather facts on the approaching sequestration crisis.

The most telling moment came after Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) listed some of the tough budget cuts he would support to stop sequestration, including delaying eligibility for Medicare and Social Security for younger workers, and paring federal funds for beach erosion, if colleagues agreed to cut their favored programs for their states like crop subsidies.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), committee chairman, told Andrews he applauded his willingness to float such controversial ideas.

“However, many [colleagues] who are facing election in November, who are in tighter races, are not going to step up and do that,” McKeon said.

“If the chairman would yield,” interrupted Andrews for some dry wit. “My race may have just gotten a lot tighter.”

As the laughter died away, Andrews added with seriousness, “We have been pushing things out to the future around here for about 40 years. We keep having commissions and delays, and that’s what’s got us into this problem. I think the time is [here] for us to make some decisions.”

McKeon agreed. But Republican colleagues had another priority, pinning blame for sequestration on President Obama because he signed the deal – called the Budget Control Act – that Republicans and Democrats had negotiated last August to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt.

Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, rejected all such charges, telling House Republicans they created the debt ceiling crisis, voted with Democrats to accept sequestration as an enforcing mechanism to get a “balanced” budget deal, and now refuse the “balance” by opposing tax increases of any kind, including on the richest Americans.

“There are five months remaining for Congress to act,” Zients told Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) during in a long and heated exchange. “What is holding us up right now is the Republican refusal to have the top two percent pay their fair share.”

The Budget Control Act directed a trillion-dollar cut in federal spending over 10 years including $487 billion from defense. It also established a “super committee” of Senate and House members with power to design and push to enactment another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction initiatives.

The law also directed that, if no deal came from the super committee by last Christmas, and none did, then an automatic across-the-board cut, called sequestration, would fall on all “non-exempt” federal programs, starting Jan. 2, 2013. The Defense Department’s share would another $500 billion, or $55 billion a year through year 2021.

Congress can still reach a deal and stop sequestration. If it doesn’t, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned, it “will introduce “senseless chaos into the management of every single one of more than two thousand five hundred defense investment programs.” Billions of taxpayer dollars will be wasted and thousands of defense industry jobs lost, he said.

A day before the Aug. 1 hearing, President Obama announced that he would exercise his prerogative under the budget law to exempt military personnel accounts from sequestration for at least next year. He did so to signal support for troops, Carter said, but also because a sudden 10-percent cut in military personnel accounts would be impractical to implement quickly, given that military members can’t be furloughed like civilian employees.

Such a large swift cut would force very dramatic actions. For example, the services would have to stop all recruiting or stop all permanent change-of-station orders, freezing the force in place for lack of travel dollars.

The easier course was to exempt military personnel accounts for now, Carter explained. That means all other areas of defense spending would take budget hits larger than 10 percent if Congress fails to stop sequestration.

Some military benefits and services still would be impacted, Carter explained. Wartime operating budgets would be protected but at the cost of taking deeper cuts than 10 percent to base operations and maintenance accounts, which would affect training, readiness and base support services.

Funds for civilian employees would be cut, forcing release of temporary employees and at least a partial hiring freeze.

“We might also have to impose unpaid furloughs on our civilian personnel,” he said. “You can imagine the effect on the output, not to mention the morale of these defense employees.”

Military families and retirees would feel the cuts to base support services, facility repairs and maintenance of family housing.

“Commissary hours might have to be reduced. Funds for the defense health program, which provides health care for retirees and military dependents, would be sequestered, resulting in delays of payments to service providers and potentially some denial of medical services,” he said.

Committee members heard the details and all agreed sequestration must be avoided. Congress is in recess now until mid-September.

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

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, dismissed a Republican’s criticism of Zients for partisanship. Smith said committee members themselves are “very partisan” but they are used to hearing from Defense Department witnesses who “don’t fight back. And today we had someone who was willing to punch back.”

Before adjourning, McKeon chided Zients for hammering on Republican refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy as the sole roadblock to a deal, ignoring that the Democratic-led Senate hasn’t even passed a budget. When both chambers have a budget, he implied, negotiations on a deal could begin.

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