Party leaders predict temporary sequestration cuts are likely

January 24, 2013
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Lawmakers are gearing up for a pair of upcoming budget battles despite making progress on the debt limit, which the House agreed on Wednesday to suspend until mid-April — the president has signaled he will not block the measure, but the Senate still needs to vote on it.

Still looming are a March 1 deadline that could trigger the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration and a March 27 cutoff for avoiding a government shutdown once Congress’s last short-term spending plan expires.

The prospect of sequestration seems increasingly likely these days, with a growing number of Republicans and Democrats suggesting they’re resigned to the idea.

Leaders from both political parties predicted Wednesday that sequestration would take place at least temporarily while lawmakers try to come up with a longer-term plan for reining in the national debt, according to an article by Lori Montgomery and Rosalind S. Helderman in Thursday’s Washington Post.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reportedly said, “I think we are committed to some form of sequestration spending cut.” He added that the White House is considering options for blunting the impacts on government services and the federal workforce, according to Thursday’s article.

So what does that mean for federal agencies?

A Jan. 10 report from the Congressional Research Service said sequestration would entail “largely across-the-board spending reductions.” The operative word there is “largely,” meaning some programs — but not the federal workforce — would be shielded.

A host of so-called “mandatory” programs would be exempt from cuts, including Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Additional Child Tax Credit, and low-income programs such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, according to the report.

Federal agencies would see across-the-board budget cuts of between 8 percent and 10 percent.

The government would have until Sept. 30 to make the required reductions, giving lawmakers time to forge a deal for less-painful cuts. In the meantime, agencies would absorb the impacts slowly, which is what Durbin was referring to when he said “I think we are committed to some form of sequestration spending cut.”

The idea is that lawmakers might be willing to let sequestration run its course for awhile to reduce spending without having to choose where the trimming occurs.

Post reporter Lisa Rein explored what that might entail for federal agencies in a Dec. 24 article. Here’s what she wrote:

“Most agencies would continue spending, but with caution, eliminating travel and training programs and slowing or halting hiring. Overtime would be phased out, as would temporary help. Managers may have to decide whom to furlough and for how long.”

“Managers say that without knowing how long the cuts will be in effect, they can’t make smart decisions.”

Post reporter Eric Yoder noted in a blog item Wednesday that sequestration furloughs likely wouldn’t begin right away and would be spread out over the year. He also explained that employees forced to stop working would not be able to substitute paid leave for the time off, although benefits such as health and life insurance would generally continue.

Sequestration would not affect pay rates, according to a Congressional Research Service report from January 2011.

E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page,and Post Politics.

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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