Budget Process Stokes Debate About Sequestration's Toll

WASHINGTON – Democrats are intensifying efforts to place a laser-like focus on the damaging aspects of sequestration, hoping to gin up antagonism toward the budget-cutting process that they maintain is harming national security and other vital parts of the federal government.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Louisville, Ky., and denounced the forced reductions, asserting that they carry a “damaging effect.”

The Senate Budget Committee conducted a hearing Tuesday on the impact of sequestration on the nation’s defenses, with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the panel’s chairwoman, characterizing sequestration as an “arbitrary system that hurts our prosperity.” On June 27 Murray held a hearing on the way federal budget decisions affect children’s programs, arguing that “we cannot and should not solve our debt and deficit problems on the backs of our children.”

And the Senate Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts held a hearing on how sequestration is undermining the nation’s judicial system, with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, maintaining that the effects of sequestration will be “devastating and long-lasting,” particularly as it pertains to the public defender system.

The heightened attacks on sequestration arrive at a time when the federal government finds itself careening toward the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 with bleak prospects for the House and Senate arriving at a 2014 budget agreement, rendering it unlikely that lawmakers will address any scars left by sequestration.

In fact, House Republicans are looking to impose even deeper and more significant cuts in next year’s spending plan. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House will not approve any increase in the government’s debt ceiling – expected to be reached shortly after Labor Day – without “real cuts in spending.”

Sequestration, a forced across-the-board budget cut affecting most federal programs that took effect in March, was part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, implemented when the White House and Congress proved unable to agree on an earlier debt ceiling showdown. The act required a specially formed congressional committee – the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the “super committee” – to produce legislation by November 2012 to decrease the nation’s budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The super committee failed to reach an agreement, resulting in sequestration with the cuts divided equally between domestic and defense programs. The result was $85 billion in across-the-board cuts in 2013. Under the plan, discretionary spending will fall again in 2014 by $42.8 billion while defense experiences a drop of $34.2 billion.

Congressional Republicans generally have expressed satisfaction with sequestration’s impact although they would like to soften the effects on defense. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a budget hawk, is among those who view reductions in defense spending as “unwise” but wants to stick with sequestration.

“It is important that we hold to the reasonable reductions in the rate of spending growth as set forth in the Budget Control Act,” Sessions said. “However, Congress should modify the mechanism to ensure shared sacrifices. Too many agencies were not required to tighten their belts at all. They were allowed to continue to grow without restraint.”

Sessions noted that the food stamp program has quadrupled since 2001, from $20 billion to $80 billion. Medicaid has increased at a rate almost doubling defense increases in recent years.

“Yet those programs and others were not required to even minutely control their rate of growth,” Sessions said. “It is time to adopt a balanced approach to deficit reduction.”

But Democrats claim sequestration already is having a dilatory impact on governmental services. During the hearing on children’s services, Murray said if the supporters of sequestration and further budget cuts had their way “low-income children would be left more hungry and in less stable home environments, the number of Americans without health insurance would rise, and the most vulnerable families would be put at greater risk.”

“That isn’t fair,” she said. “And it’s not right.”

Murray added that while she agrees with those seeking to reduce the debt and deficit, “I do not share many of their beliefs that indiscriminate cuts are the answer. We can’t ask our children, especially our most vulnerable children, to bear the burden of our spending cuts.”

Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, an advocacy group for children and families, told the committee that if sequestration remains in place “the pain is only going to get worse.”