Washington Watch: Sequestration takes hold

by jordan blum

Advocate Washington bureau

The sequestration apocalypse-palooza is officially now in effect.

No, anarchy has not taken hold and the streets are not running red with blood.

So the question is should we follow the British lead, “Keep calm and carry on?”

Well, that depends.

Louisiana will feel the impacts of the $85 billion in arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts to federal defense and discretionary spending. But the sequester isn’t about to cripple the state’s economy, especially as the cuts are slowly phased in.

The people with the most to gripe about are the federal employees who will very soon start facing furloughed time off without pay, including nearly 7,000 civilian defense employees in Louisiana expected to lose up to a day of pay each week.

The shipbuilding and fabrication industries, including in southern Louisiana, could take hits because of fewer defense contracts.

And inconveniences likely will abound. Flight delays and cancellations are expected nationwide as cuts are implemented within the Federal Aviation Administration and the oft-maligned Transportation Security Administration, which will have fewer employees in place to tell people to remove their shoes, belts and more.

Although Republicans have called it “fear-mongering,” the Obama administration also has warned that small airports could face shutdowns because the air traffic controllers would need to close because of the budget cuts. The hit list includes New Orleans Lakefront Airport, Lake Charles Regional Airport, Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Shreveport Downtown Airport and the Monroe Regional Airport.

Roughly $26 million in potential education cuts in Louisiana would mean fewer teachers, less special-education resources and fewer Head Start early childhood education slots for kids.

Congress can still prevent most of this if compromises are worked out in the coming weeks. However, Congress took the weekend off as the sequester went into effect, and a meeting with President Barack Obama and congressional leaders Friday at the White House ended quickly and without any progress.

The sequester came about in 2011 as a compromise that came from the White House as a result of House Republicans threatening to make the federal government default on its bills during the debt ceiling debate. The across-the-board cuts to defense spending and nondefense discretionary spending were created as a poison pill to force compromises that have not come.

No one at the time ever expected the cuts would go into place. Oops.

The primary sticking point at the moment is Republicans want to focus only on implementing the cuts more strategically, while Obama demands a more “balanced” approach that includes significant budget cuts but also increased revenues by eliminating some tax loopholes and exemptions that mostly benefit the wealthy, such as the oft-repeated corporate jet exemption.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Friday that Obama already got his tax hikes on Jan. 1.

“This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over,” Boehner said. “It’s about taking on the spending problem in Washington.”

Republicans continued to call it the “president’s sequester,” while Obama on Friday again blamed congressional Republicans for the sequester by refusing to budge on tax loopholes that most Republicans agree need to be fixed.

When questioned about whether he is showing enough leadership, Obama said he cannot do any “Jedi” mind tricks to force Republicans in Congress to see things his way and not just “paint horns on my head.”

The president argued in favor of a comprehensive to plan to cut the budget, get some tax code changes and then make the more-costly health-care reforms to the hugely expensive Medicare program that Democrats may not like.

But Obama is openly admitting he is wagering on the American public pressuring congressional Republicans to bring them back to the table to negotiate on more than just deficit reduction.

So, until that occurs, the sequester cuts will continue.

“We will get through this,” Obama said. “It’s not going to be an apocalypse as some people say ... But, if Congress comes to its senses a week from now, a month from now, three months from now, then there’s a lot of open running room there for us to grow our economy much more quickly.”

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. his email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.