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Tweaking sequester feeds demand for more adjustments to spending cuts

The longer the sequester is in effect, the more we’re learning that it’s not quite the fiscal straightjacket that it might have appeared to be at first.  Despite being billed as automatic spending cuts, the sequester is not an unalterable doomsday machine.

And in the weeks ahead Congress and the Obama administration will be under pressure from advocacy groups and special interests to find other ways to relax some of the fiscal constraints the law was supposed to apply.

Last week’s decision by Congress to explicitly give the Department of Transportation the power to shift $253 million in funds to the Federal Aviation Administration so as to avert furloughs of air traffic controllers was a reminder that despite the “automatic” cuts in the sequester, Congress is still making spending choices and sometimes second- guessing the choices made by executive branch officials.

Even before last week, Congress had already delayed by three months and reduced by $24 billion the size of the spending cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Addressing the spending cuts at his press conference Tuesday President Barack Obama said, “The only way we're going to lift it (the sequester) is if we do a bigger deal that meets the test of lowering our deficit and growing our economy at the same time. And that's going to require some compromises on the part of both Democrats and Republicans.”

Obama said he had had “some good conversations with Republican senators so far. Those conversations are continuing. I think there's a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester, but Washington dysfunction.”

He said he wanted “to do everything we can to create a permission structure” for congressional Republicans to agree with him on an alternative set of spending curbs and tax increases as a substitute for the sequester.

But he rejected the notion that “my job is to somehow get them (congressional Republicans) to behave.”

And he noted that the funding fix that allowed the FAA furloughs to be averted came from “shifting money that's designed to repair and improve airports over the long term to fix the short-term problem. Well that's not a solution.”

Obama explained why he will sign the FAA furlough fix into law by saying, “Frankly, I don't think that if I were to veto, for example, this FAA bill, that that somehow would lead to the broader fix. It just means that there'd be pain now -- which they would try to blame on me -- as opposed to paying five years from now.”

Meanwhile, some Democratic members of Congress are using their week back in their home states and districts to press for more easing of the cuts. On Tuesday Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D- Wash., will be hosting an event with cancer, diabetes and other medical researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to highlight the effects of the spending cuts on medical research. 

Also Tuesday in Tampa, Fla., Rep. Kathy Castor, D- Fla., is holding a press conference with the Hillsborough County Head Start director and local parents to protest the sequester’s effect on the Head Start program.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney on Monday didn’t flatly rule out the idea of the president signing other ad hoc adjustments to the spending cuts if Congress were to pass them.

As with the FAA legislation, loosening the sequester’s constraints might in some cases simply be a matter of re-programming, or shifting around, money within a department’s accounts.

But it does not seem likely that there would be a majority in the House or a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate to rescind the five percent reduction in non-defense discretionary funding (for items such as diabetes research) or the eight percent reduction in defense discretionary funding.

And a House-passed Republican sequester replacement bill (substituting other cuts for the ones currently in force) won’t be passed by the Senate.

So for now Congress is limited to giving executive branch officials flexibility in how they manage their funds.

As painful as the cuts might be, Obama administration officials insist that they are not trying to make them feel or appear more painful than they are.

In fact in some cases, it seems as if Obama administration officials have made chosen the less draconian approach to using their reduced finding – an approach that may have a less visible or dramatic impact on people using federal services or facilities. Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told a House committee two weeks ago that he’d decided to not close any national parks entirely, but instead to spread the sequester’s impact by reducing operating hours and reducing services at some parks.

This underscores the point that the sequester isn’t a government shutdown – no “closed due to sequester” signs will appear at Yosemite or Crater Lake.

And the pain an individual person might feel depends on which federal program he or she is a beneficiary of.

As was true from the beginning -- but has sometimes been lost sight of – the spending cuts weren’t designed to be applied across the board. Exempt from the spending cuts are entitlement programs such as Medicaid, as well as military salaries, and programs for the poor such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In some cases, the very same people who stand to lose from cuts in one program – such as Meals on Wheels – will still be exempt from cuts in another, such as Medicaid.

 

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