WASHINGTON — Four days from the onset of the so-called “sequester,” a series of wide-ranging across-the-board budget cuts, politicians from both parties spent Monday talking about how ill-advised it would be to allow the cuts to proceed.
But they appeared to be making little — or no — progress toward preventing them.
At the White House, President Barack Obama told a gathering of the nation’s governors that “Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do.”
Obama urged the governors to lobby their states’ Congressional delegations, telling them, “These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little bit of compromise.”
On the Republican side, a trio of governors on Monday argued that Obama was trying to frighten the public about the impact of the cuts, and urged him to continue pursuing alternate spending reductions as they criticized his call for new tax revenue.
“I think he’s trying to scare the American people,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters at a Republican Governors Association news conference following a meeting with Obama at the White House.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, vice chairman of the RGA, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appeared alongside Jindal and echoed his criticism of the president.
“My kids could find 83 billion dollars” to cut “from a four-trillion-dollar budget,” Haley said.
The deep cuts, split evenly between defense and domestic spending, are set to begin Friday unless lawmakers act to avert them. Democrats are advocating a mix of new tax revenues and alternate spending reductions as a means of avoiding the sequester. Republicans are opposed to any tax increases.
Obama has an “insatiable appetite for new revenues,” Jindal, the chairman of the RGA, said.
The sequester involves about $85 billion in cuts, roughly split between military and nonmilitary domestic programs. It was imposed in the 2011 deal that ended the debt-ceiling crisis. The cuts were meant as a scare tactic, not as a real-world policy: They were so deep and so painful, it was believed, that the two parties would be forced to replace them with something else.
That didn’t happen.
On Monday, the Obama administration continued its effort to detail the harmful consequences of the cuts. Over the weekend, it released a state-by-state breakdown of the projected impact. On Monday, it released an agency-by-agency breakdown.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano warned Monday that her agency would be forced to furlough 5,000 border control agents under the mandatory spending cuts. She said the cuts also would disrupt Homeland Security’s ability to conduct customs inspections at ports, leading to increased wait times for travelers and cargo shipments. Disaster relief funding would be reduced by $1 billion, she added, meaning relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., could be cut.
She also said the department would have to scale back patrols between ports of entry in the southwest United States after years of making progress in stopping people from entering the country illegally from Mexico.
Asked if the cuts would make the country more susceptible to acts of terrorism, Napolitano said: “It’s always a threat. We do what we can to minimize the risk, but the sequester makes it awfully, awfully tough.
At the National Institutes of Health, Director Francis Collins said the sequester would mean $1.6 billion in cuts, and it would affect research into such diseases as cancer, influenza and Alzheimer’s.
Hundreds of research grants would go unfunded, he said, and some 20,000 highly-skilled workers would lose their jobs. Collins said he also expects to have to turn away patients from the NIH’s clinical center, which allows people who have exhausted their treatment options to participate in clinical trials.
And at the Food and Drug Administration, officials said the cuts would likely mean delays in translating new science and technology into regulatory policy and decision-making. That, they said, could result in longer wait times for approval of new drugs and medical devices.
The House and Senate are expected to vote this week on legislation that would stop the sequester in its current form. But if that sounds like progress toward a compromise, it probably isn’t. The bills are largely symbolic – neither Democrats nor Republicans expect the measures to get enough support to pass Congress.
On Monday, several lawmakers voiced frustration with Congress’s inaction. On “CBS This Morning,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said, “I don’t think the public realizes how stupid these cuts are.” In some instances, he said, cuts to the defense budget could actually cost money – not save it – because they would interfere with existing contracts.
As for the lack of progress on Capitol Hill, Warner said, “I don’t get it. … Limping from one budget crisis to another doesn’t do anything for this economy.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime advocate of smaller government, said that the sequester’s impact could be lessened with a hiring freeze in the federal workforce.
In a letter to the administration, Coburn listed 10 help-wanted ads recently placed by federal agencies for what Coburn called “lower priority” jobs. They included 10 drivers for the State Department, a legislative liaison for the U.S. Marine Corps and an Air Force employee to take charge of service’s historical programs.
“Are any of these positions more important than an air traffic controller, a border patrol officer, a food inspector, a TSA screener, or a civilian supporting our men and women in combat in Afghanistan?” Coburn wrote in his letter.