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Despite complaints from Congress, sequester spending cuts taking root

It’s not yet been two months since the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester went into effect, but some members of Congress are already unhappy with the results.  

Congress passed those cuts in the Budget Control Act two summers ago as a fallback plan, hoping to spark a deal to control the national debt.  But that idea backfired and the fallback plan became operative.

The sequester exempts most entitlement benefits, and thus falls almost entirely on the discretionary, or annually appropriated, programs, from national parks to airport control towers.

Congressional Democrats keep hoping that the budget bargain that wasn’t reached in 2011 will somehow be found this year which would allow the sequester to be cancelled.

But at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday, ranking Republican member Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma assured the witness, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, that the sequester “is going to stay.”

He added after the hearing, “That money is not coming back…. There isn’t going to be a Republican who’s going to vote to take that spending reduction away.” (Coburn voted against the Budget Control Act.)

He added “As stupid as the sequester is, and how we did it, the benefit of the sequester is that it’s causing everybody to re-think everything, what’s important, what’s not, what a priority, what’s not.”

Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks about the effects of the sequester from the White House in Washington February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

And in her testimony on the Department of Homeland Security’s spending request for the new fiscal year, Napolitano did not say that the sequester is forcing her department to jeopardize public safety by, for example, skimping on border patrols. She did tell senators that the more than $3 billion in cuts having to be absorbed in just six months was “having significant effects.” The cuts “will affect operations in the short and long term.” She pledged to “do everything we can to minimize the impacts on our core mission and our employees.”

A high-profile sequester casualty – control towers at smaller airports – was the focus of Tuesday’s Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing featuring Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator Michael Huerta.

Spending cuts have led the FAA schedule the closing of 149 air traffic control towers across the nation. But please, not in my state, both Republican and Democratic senators told Huerta.

“Why close Nashua's tower? I certainly don't want you to close Lebanon's too, but it seems a little arbitrary to me,” complained Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., referring to the FAA’s decision to close an airport tower in Nashua, Ayotte’s home town but to keep one in Lebanon, N.H., which gets less traffic, operating.

Huerta explained some of the arcane points of airport funding and then told Ayotte that Nashua was a tower that fell below the FAA’s measure of 150,000 annual operations and 10,000 commercial operations. So it will lose its federal funding.

Ayotte was one of the 26 senators voted against the sequester in 2011 but Sen. Mark Pryor, D- Ark, one of the 74 who voted for it and who is up for re-election next year, also complained to Huerta at Tuesday’s hearing about the closing of the tower at the Texarkana airport.

Huerta explained to Pryor that all but one of the 149 towers FAA will close in June is already closed “for a significant portion of every day. And so, they have existing rules of how they operate in a non-towered capacity. And therefore, when they convert to 24-hour non-towered operations, they simply revert to those rules.” Huerta added later “We’re not doing anything that is not safe.” But he said, “in order to maintain the highest levels of safety, what you sacrifice is efficiency.”

He’ll need to furlough 47,000 FAA employees for up to 11 days between April 21 and Sept. 30 and as a result, at the largest hub airports travelers will undergo up to 90-minute delays during the peak travel periods. But he said, “As we to undergo the difficult process of implementing the deep cuts required by the sequester, we refuse to sacrifice safety.”

Summing up the effects of the spending cuts on the FAA’s modernization plan for air traffic control, Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D- W.V., called it “a terrible situation” and “incomprehensible – but there it is.” He added that the delay in the implementation of Next Gen, the new air traffic control system, would be “awful and dangerous.” Rockefeller voted for the Budget Control Act.

On the House side of the Capitol, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Tuesday scrutinized how three agencies ­-- the National Park Service, the Smithsonian and the National Archives -- that deal with the tourists who visit the nation’s capital are coping with the spending cuts.

Republicans used the hearing to attack National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis for not starting to plan for the sequester back in 2011. The National Archives implemented a hiring freeze in 2011 but the Park Service did not.

Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R- Calif. – who voted for the sequester as did 268 other House members – called the spending cuts “the first real down payment on reducing the size of government in my twelve-plus years on the Hill,” but also called the sequester “the worst possible way to save money.” 

Yet, he said, some executive branch officials – such as Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, who runs the agency that displays the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence – had frugally managed their money and made the effect of the sequester “less onerous than it would otherwise be.”

Jarvis told the committee, “No national parks are closing – what we’re doing is reducing operating hours, reducing services at some of them, reducing the ranger-led programs, as well as maintenance.” He added that he could have chosen to close 70 to 100 smaller national park sites, but “we chose to spread the impact across all units, reducing services but not actually closing any individual park.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, R- N.C., whose district includes parts Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told Jarvis that signs had gone up in his district saying that the Park Service is closing operations due to sequestration. “I’m unaware of any signs,” Jarvis said, telling Meadows that he would instruct his subordinates to take them any such signs down.

And Jarvis said he was not aware of any order from his superiors to make the sequester as painful as possible.

“No, sir, we do not want to make this painful,” Jarvis told Meadows. But referring to the cuts in park services, he told Meadows that “there’s a difference between intentionally making them painful and the fact that they will be painful…. A cut of this level is painful by definition.”

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