Pessimistic report says budget cuts could be worse in 2014

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 2, 2013

Sequestration was a big headache.

Though the distress from the federal budget cuts in fiscal year 2013 wasn’t as bad as originally projected, it was plenty tough enough.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Now comes a report that says if sequester continues, the pain will hurt much more.

How Sequestration Gets Worse in 2014” is the pessimistic title of a report published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank close to Democrats.

“Sequestration is already a disaster,” writes author Harry Stein.

On that, the progressive organization can find some common ground with the conservative Heritage Foundation. It says the “automatic spending reductions demonstrate Washington dysfunction” and show how government leaders “relinquished their responsibility to govern to a blunt instrument.”

This doesn’t have to continue if Congress can produce a reasonable budget deal.

But if Congress can’t manage to correct a mistake of its own making, “there are four factors making next year’s sequester even more damaging than this year’s,” Stein said.

His list:

●Budget cuts are scheduled to be larger in 2014 than 2013.

●Many of the 2013 cuts have not yet been implemented.

●“One-time fixes that mitigated sequestration’s worst impacts in 2013 cannot be used again” in 2014.

●“Sequestration made cuts to little-noticed but critical functions of government — cuts that will be particularly devastating if they are not reversed soon.”

Absent congressional action, sequestration will take a bigger bite in 2014. It was designed to cut $109 billion from the budget each year, but legislation reduced that to $85 billion in 2013. “Unless Congress acts again,” says the report, “the full $109 billion in sequestration cuts will take effect in 2014.”

Stein paints a bleak picture of what is in store for the nation and its government. His report, however, makes no mention of the impact on those who would get hit first by another sequester — federal employees.

Agencies have options, so “it’s hard to know” what to expect regarding employee furloughs, Stein said during an interview. “A lot of agencies basically did everything they could to minimize furloughs.”

Nonetheless, he added, “I would expect there would be more furloughs next year than last.”

The number of unpaid leave days that hit feds during the sequester varied substantially by agency. It could have been many more days had agency officials not employed a variety of what Stein calls “budget gimmicks,” “quick fixes” and “one-time fixes.”

“The most high-profile quick fix for sequestration was at the Federal Aviation Administration, where air traffic controller furloughs were delaying travelers across the country,” his report says. “To stop the furloughs, Congress cut investments in airport improvements to pay the salaries of the air traffic controllers. That makes sense for now, but airport infrastructure needs are piling up, and Congress will eventually have to pay the bill.”

Furthermore, gimmicks “only work once,” said Stein, and “quick fixes will only make things worse down the road.”

Delaying airport improvements is one example of how things could get worse. Here are a few others from Stein’s report:

●To keep meat inspectors on the job, the Agriculture Department postponed facilities’ maintenance and cut one-time grants. “For now, meat inspectors remain on the job, but one-time grants can only be cut once, and maintenance cannot be deferred forever.”

●The Forest Service avoided some cuts to its firefighting efforts by cutting fire-prevention programs. Now, “the risk of catastrophic wildfires is far higher than it should be.”

●Congress allowed the FBI to use previously allocated money to cover some of its sequester cuts, but the agency still had to impose a hiring freeze, reduce staff training and postpone the purchase of new vehicles. Still, the FBI is considering closing its offices and furloughing agents for two weeks in 2014.

●The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) postponed training and computer upgrades and used prior-year funds to cover most of its sequester-related cuts.

“If sequestration is not repealed, the postponed training and upgrade requirements will place greater strain on the NRC budget” and the prior-year funds will not be available to avoid steeper cuts, Stein said.

“Sequestration was never meant to happen, and Congress made a mistake by allowing it to kick in,” Stein concluded. “As long as that mistake is fixed soon, the damage can be contained.”

But does he expect it to be fixed soon?

Stein demurred: “It’s hard to say.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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