Last Week on the Hill: Sequester Update
By Tila Neguse on 09/18/2012 @ 03:00 PM
Last week marked the first week back for the House and Senate after the August recess. With less than a month until the beginning of the October 1 fiscal year, Congress has their hands full, having yet to find a solution to the federal budget deficit problem. The clock is ticking as not only the fiscal year steadily approaches but also the start of a new calendar year that brings the threat of sequestration, $1.2 trillion of automatic across the board cuts to domestic and defense programs. The conversation and activity on the Hill last week centered on the looming threat of the sequester.
Two significant bills passed the House and the Obama Administration released their mandated report on the sequester.
Here’s a recap:
Introduced by Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and passing the House on Thursday with a vote of 223 to 196, this bill seeks to restore all cuts in Pentagon spending that would occur under the sequester, while leaving domestic cuts intact.
The bill, like the Sequestration Transparency Act passed earlier this summer, demands answers from the Obama Administration and challenges them to create an alternative plan to sequester by mid-October.
Such policy is legislative masquerading and does nothing to address the need for a balanced alternative to the sequester. Instead, it is a partisan tactic designed to center the floor debate about sequester around defense. This bill protects the Pentagon at the expense of domestic human needs programs and exempts Congress of the need to work together to find a balanced approach. This legislation is not expected to pass the Senate. And the Administration has issued a statement threatening to veto it remarking that “The bill's unbalanced approach breaks the agreement reached in the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).”
Perhaps the most notable and significant piece of legislation to pass the House last week was the 6-month Continuing Resolution (CR) with a vote of 329 to 91. A continuing resolution is a form of legislation used by Congress when formal appropriations bills have not been passed by the end of the fiscal year. It serves as a temporary vehicle for funding programs until a new appropriations cycle. This CR provides funding for the government until March 27, 2013. It keeps discretionary spending at a $1.047 trillion rate, with a small 0.6% increase for most programs.
The resolution provides continued funding for mandatory programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) block grant program and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The bill funds the Pentagon at current levels and provides $99.9 billion for overseas contingency operations and $88.5 billion for war spending in Afghanistan.
This legislation is expected to pass the Senate this week.
The Administration finished out the week with the Friday afternoon release of their report in response to the Sequestration Transparency Act. The report seeks to detail the specific ways in which program cuts would occur if sequestration were to be enacted.
The almost 400-page report is lengthy but not substantive. Sequestration was never meant to be an effective policy for deficit reduction, but instead a forcing function, a tool to move the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction towards a balanced deal. The report even states, “Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument. It is not the responsible way for our Nation to achieve deficit reduction.”
Veterans’ benefits and military personnel accounts are exempt from the sequester. The report summarizes a 2% limit to cuts in Medicare, totaling $11 billion over 10 years. These cuts will impact providers not patients.
The philosophy behind the sequester was that a deficit reduction plan as such, so destructive and so careless, would inevitably force a bipartisan committee to adopt a balanced plan. That did not happen. That has not happened. The report specifically outlines the damage to non-defense discretionary programs explaining that “education grants to States and local school districts supporting smaller classes, afterschool programs, and children with disabilities would suffer.”
With the number of in-session days winding down, a new fiscal and calendar approaching, our federal budget problems are not going to solve themselves. Last week seemed be a week of policy posturing that ended, yet again, with no solutions. At FCNL we are urging Congress to adopt a balanced plan. A deficit reduction plan that cuts Pentagon spending by $1 trillion dollars over the next ten years, protects domestic human needs programs, and restores lost revenues. Reductions in Pentagon spending are an integral part of such a balance, without the savings from Pentagon reductions, vital domestic programs that protect the most vulnerable among us will be cut to devastatingly low levels. There has to be balance.