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.”

“Already, families have lost housing supports and more children will face homelessness in the coming years,” Lesley said.

Sequestration, he said, has forced school districts to lay off teachers and drastically reduce support services to needy students and students with disabilities. Some schools have eliminated athletics and all extracurricular activities as well as some bus routes. Head Start programs have had to close weeks early or kick children out, he added.

Sessions noted that the federal government spends $780 billion a year on 83 different welfare and poverty programs affecting children “yet poverty is now increasing, so something is wrong. We must start defining compassion and helpfulness not by how much money we spend but how many people we actually help to remove themselves out of poverty.”

A number of welfare programs dealing with children’s health and nutrition are expected to be hit by the sequestration cuts.

“The impact of our present budgetary situation on children is an issue we need to talk about,” Sessions said. “What we’ve learned is over the years many of the programs that are intended to help lower income children and others in poverty have not had the positive impact we would like them to have.”

On defense, Murray maintained that sequestration needs to be replaced with what she characterized as a “more responsible deficit reduction that would be better for our national security, long-term economic growth and our fiscal health.”

“At a time when too many Americans are still struggling to find work, civilian defense employees are being furloughed and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, our economic recovery and our military preparedness is suffering,” Murray said. “While I believe there are responsible spending cuts to be made in defense programs, the current across-the-board cuts and future arbitrary spending reductions over the next 8 years as part of sequestration are not the answer.”

Robert Work, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, expressed concern that sequestration will affect military strategy and readiness.

“For a global superpower, maintaining a force capable of fighting one major war and denying the objectives of an opportunistic aggressor in a different theater would seem to be the absolute minimum requirement,” Work said. “However, sequestration will make it virtually impossible to maintain this minimum standard. The associated defense cuts will inevitably result in a less capable future Joint Force that is less ready and less robust than at any time since the end of the Cold War.”

Sessions agreed and suggested lawmakers “work together to stave off this unwise level of cuts to defense spending.”

Meanwhile, the Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts heard U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Julia S. Gibbons testify that sequestration, resulting in a $350 million reduction in judiciary funding, has “had a devastating impact on federal court operations nationwide.”

“The judiciary cannot continue to operate at such drastically reduced funding levels without seriously compromising the constitutional mission of the federal courts,” she said.

Funding allocations sent out to nearly 400 court units nationwide were cut 10 percent below 2012 levels. Court and probation clerks and pretrial services offices will downsize by as many as 1,000 employees during the current fiscal year as a result of funding cuts. The current staffing level of 20,100 personnel is the lowest since 1999 despite significant workload growth. Furloughs have also taken a toll.

“We are still trying to ascertain the impact of these cuts on court operations but we believe the staffing losses are resulting in the slower processing of civil and bankruptcy cases which will impact individuals, small businesses, and corporations seeking to resolve disputes in the federal Courts,” Gibbons said.

Security at courthouses is suffering. Sequestration has resulted in a 30 percent cut in funding for court security systems and equipment. Court security officers are being required to work reduced hours, creating security vulnerabilities throughout the system.

Perhaps hardest hit is the public defender system which already was facing a 5 percent budget cut when sequestration went into effect.

“We are on the verge of being crippled, and we’re a model of quality and efficiency,” said Michael S. Nachmanoff, federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia.

But Sessions expressed doubt that the judiciary faces significant issues as a result of sequestration.

“I think cuts are delivering justice today just as well as they were before these cuts took place,” Sessions said. “I don’t have any doubt about it.”