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Everything We Know About What’s Happened Under Sequestration

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Posted on May 7, 2013
Shutterstock illustration of American candle burning.

By Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

When the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt faced cancellation this year due to the package of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, the National Park Service kicked into high gear. It rescued the event 2014 held since 1878 2014 with money from “corporate sponsors and the sale of commemorative wooden eggs,” according to the Washington Post.

The nation’s airline passengers also caught a break last month when Congress passed (and President Obama quickly signed) a bill allowing the Federal Aviation Administration to shift some funds and halt the furloughs of air traffic controllers that had been blamed for long flight delays around the country.

But other programs haven’t been so lucky. Children in Indiana have been cut from the federally funded Head Start preschool program, and one Head Start program in Maine is being cut altogether. Furloughs have begun for employees of agencies from the U.S. Park Police to the Environmental Protection Agency. And cuts to Medicare have forced cancer clinics to turn away thousands of patients who are being treated with drugs the clinics can no longer afford.

We’ve taken a look at what’s actually happened in the two months since sequestration took effect.

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Remind me, what is sequestration again?

Remember the clash over the debt ceiling back in 2011?

When Republicans and Obama struck a deal to raise it, they created a “super committee” of six Democrats and six Republicans and gave them three and a half months to hash out $1.2 trillion worth of cuts to the federal budget over the next decade. If they failed, a package of automatic cuts designed to slash funding to programs dear to both parties (military spending, in the Republicans’ case, and Medicare and other domestic programs in the Democrats’) would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Needless to say, the super committee failed, leading to the cuts we’re seeing now.

How does this fit in with the “fiscal cliff”?

Sequestration was one element of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which also included a number of other spending cuts and tax increases. Congress passed a last-minute deal Jan. 1 to blunt the cliff’s impact, which included pushing back the effective date for sequestration to March 1. While Obama and members of Congress spoke out against sequestration in February 2014 Senate Democrats announced a plan to put it off for another 10 months 2014 those efforts failed to stop the cuts.

So what’s happened since March 1?

The indiscriminate cuts affected a wide range of federal programs and departments, making them difficult to track. (Even the White House struggled to explain exactly which programs they’d hit while it was denouncing them.) Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters Feb. 28 that sequestration would have “a rolling impact, an effect that will build and build and build.”

Congress passed a bill, signed by Obama on March 26, to spare a few programs from cuts this year, including an infant nutrition program, the nuclear weapons program and funding for security at U.S. embassies abroad 2014 a sensitive area since the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September. The bill also gave some agencies, including the Pentagon, more flexibility in carrying out the sequester. And last week, Congress quickly passed (and Obama signed) a bill allowing the F.A.A. to scrap its furloughs of air traffic controllers, which had been blamed for long flight delays. But neither bill reduced the total amount the government is required to cut 2014 $85 billion, or about 2.3 percent of the $3.6 trillion federal budget 2014 by the end of the fiscal year in October.

Gotcha. What has all this done to the economy?

The Congressional Budget Office estimates sequestration will cost around 750,000 jobs in total, and forecasters think it could reduce economic growth by half a percentage point this year. But two months into sequestration, the effects are difficult to see. The economy added a relatively respectable 165,000 jobs in April, the Labor Department reported (though the federal government shed 8,000 jobs during the same period). And defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which warned that the sequester would lead to layoffs, have seen only a slight decline in their business.

Indeed, there’s at least one slice of the workforce that seems to be benefitting from sequestration: Washington lawyers. Contractors short on cash have hired attorneys to help them restructure loan payments.

Do we know any more about what’s been affected?

Yes. Sequestration is still playing out, but here’s what we know has happened so far:

Congress:

While lawmakers’ salaries are exempt from cuts, sequestration hasn’t spared congressional offices, which have had to slash spending by 8.2 percent. “Magazine subscriptions have been canceled,” the Washington Post reported. “Constituents are getting e-mail instead of snail mail. Invoices are getting a second look.” Sequestration has also cut into funding for the overseas fact-finding trips lawmakers often take, known as “codels.” House Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican, has banned his caucus from using military aircraft for codels.

The White House:

While the egg hunt was saved, the White House announced in March that it would stop giving tours due to sequestration. (Republicans criticized the decision, with Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma calling it “a dramatic overreaction.”) The White House has also furloughed 480 Office of Management and Budget staffers, and the president will voluntarily return 5 percent of his salary. Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef, has said he is also being furloughed. But Roll Call reported that the White House 2014 which spent “more than a month of dodging questions” about the effects of sequestration on West Wing staffers 2014seems to have been spared from deep cuts.

Federal Agencies:

A few agencies, such as Department of Veterans Affairs, are mostly exempt from the sequester.

But the budget cuts have hit most others, sometimes with unpredictable consequences. After sequestration forced Yellowstone National Park to cut $1.75 million from its $35 million budget, the park 2014 run by the National Park Service 2014 trimmed its payroll and decided to cut back on snowplowing, which would delay the park’s opening. Plowing was saved only when the Cody and Jackson Hole, Wyo., chambers of commerce, fearing the economic impact of a late park opening, kicked in $170,000.

In Washington, agency after agency is planning to furlough its employees. “The Department of Housing and Urban Development,” the Washington Post reported, “will shut down for seven days starting in May, after concluding that staggering furloughs for 9,000 employees would create too much paperwork.” The Internal Revenue Service will also shut down almost entirely on furlough days. And Department of Labor employees have already started taking their furlough days, which they can do a half-day at a time.

(The Justice Department and the State Department, however, have managed to avoid furloughs.)

The Department of Labor is also planning to lay off 30 of the 74 lawyers it hired to work through a backlog of mine-safety citations that are under appeal. The department had hired the lawyers after a 2010 explosion at a mine run by a company that had received many such citations but fought them, preventing regulatory action against it. The move will save the Labor Department $2.1 million.

And while air traffic controllers won’t be furloughed, it’s unclear whether the FAA will follow through on its plans to close 149 airport control towers, most of them at rural airports. New Jersey officials, for instance, remain uncertain whether the Trenton, N.J., airport tower will be closed or receive a reprieve.

Meanwhile, IRS furloughs have the potential to be counterproductive. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told a House Appropriations subcommittee in April that the cuts would lead the IRS to answer fewer calls and take longer to respond to taxpayer questions.

“It will also lead to fewer enforcement actions and reduce revenue collection,” Lew said 2014 which could cost the government money rather than saving it.


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