Sequestration still matters

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 14, 2013

Lurking behind the government shutdown and debt limit battle is the sequester. That’s the Frankenstein-like budget-cutting monster Congress created in 2011.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) wants to change the sequester law as part of a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Are Democrats moving the goal post to take advantage of public outrage at Republicans for their disastrous effort to defund President Obama’s health-care law?

Was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) right on CNN on Sunday, when he said, “Democrats want to exceed the sequester caps, these things that we put into law to restrain spending.” He added, “They’re all about Obamacare being the law of the land, but so is the sequester.”

House and Senate lawmakers reacted this year to the sequester’s impact on defense spending, but did little about domestic programs. Democrats talked about domestic impact, but they acted on defense.

The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) emerged from the last major fiscal cliff showdown, and it cut $917 billion in spending over 10 years in return for allowing the debt limit to rise by $900 billion.

In addition, when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to agree on a debt reduction program, the BCA set spending caps that would result in an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts from projected spending levels through fiscal 2021.

To enforce the limits, sequestration required across-the-board cuts in discretionary defense and non-defense categories if Congress approved higher spending levels.

There was endless publicity of the impact of the fiscal 2013 defense sequester that cut $42.7 billion out of about $528 billion, including money from overseas operations such as Afghanistan. Training was cut, ship movements reduced, troop numbers lowered.

Less attention went to the $38.7 billion that was cut out of $489 billion in fiscal 2013’s non-defense spending. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said on the House floor Thursday that the sequester had cut 57,000 children nationwide from Head Start, a program that’s “a crucial lifeline in my district, combating poverty and making our communities safer, better places to live.”

On Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) noted the irony that because of sequester cuts, National Institutes of Health funding was reduced for the research that just got Yale’s James Rothman his 2013 Nobel Prize.

For the fiscal 2014 budget, both houses of Congress took care of defense, pushing numbers far above the BCA cap.

Should sequester continue, the House’s fiscal 2014 defense figure would have to come down $47.9 billion, while the Senate’s would have to drop $54.1 billion, according to the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center.

Subsequently, the center says, “the impact of the defense sequester . . . will double in fiscal 2014 and triple in fiscal 2015 compared to fiscal 2013.”

The report found that if the defense sequester caps were not changed, between the Reagan administration defense budget and the end of the sequester in fiscal 2021, ground divisions will drop from 20 to six, Air Force fighter and attack planes will drop by 1,632 aircraft, and Navy ships will drop by 338, with the aircraft carrier force declining from 15 carriers to seven in 2021.

On the other hand, the GOP-controlled House slashed the non-defense fiscal 2013 figure below the fiscal 2014 BCA cap level while the Democratic-led Senate would have to drop its figure, $34.3 billion, for 2014 non-defense discretionary funding

On Saturday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) discussed the impact the sequester would have this fiscal year on domestic programs, beginning with Head Start, which would cut an additonal 177,000 children.

The rest of his list was equally harsh: 1.3 million fewer students would receive Title I education assistance; 760,000 fewer households would receive less heating and cooling assistance under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; 9,000 fewer special education staff would be in the classroom; $291 million less for child-care subsidies for working families; $2 billion less for the National Institutes of Health, which would mean 1,300 fewer research grants.

His list goes on.

The fiscal 2014 sequestration cuts are expected to kick in by Jan. 15. What to do about them became a sticking point in the current negotiations over the shutdown and debt ceiling.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) reflected the GOP perspective on the Senate floor Thursday, saying the two reasons the deficit has gone down is the tax increase demanded by Obama that went into effect in January 2012, “and the sequester, which has actually capped discretionary spending for the last two years. That is what has caused a reduction in the deficit, not anything else.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) put her finger on how Democrats look at the problem in a Sunday floor speech.

“The House,” she said, “is willing to take the sequester . . . but what they do — which is very disingenuous and what the Democrats will not be for — is basically take the lower number overall, but keeping defense at a very high number, and therefore cutting the heck out of everybody else.”

Find a midpoint between those positions and you may get an agreement. But modifying sequester has to be part of the package.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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