DeM Banter: what could possibly go wrong?
November 18, 2012
The Pentagon is soaking up most of the attention around the looming budget cuts that would take place at the start of the new year, but there are a host of other national security programs caught up in the fiscal cliff debate, too.
Sequestration would also mean fewer FBI agents, border patrols, meat inspectors, disease trackers, Secret Service agents, prison guards and National Guardsmen for storms like Hurricane Sandy.
The difference between these cuts and the ones to the Pentagon: They fall on the domestic side of the equation, making them potentially more vulnerable in the larger debt battle between President Barack Obama and House Republicans.
“It’d be devastating. It’d really compromise our domestic security and our capacity to respond to emergencies and disasters like the hurricane we just had,” outgoing Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told POLITICO.
Department heads can expect a little bit of wiggle room in determining where the budget ax falls first on their most vital programs absent a last-minute deal on Capitol Hill. Still, government officials and budget experts warn that the overall size of the spending cuts — 8.2 percent for most nondefense discretionary programs — is large enough that the public can expect to see a sharp decline in key services.
The National Guard, funded mostly through the Pentagon but also reimbursed by states dealing with their own tight budgets, would feel a sharp pinch if it tried to duplicate work it did for Sandy, for which tens of thousands of troops were on alert to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials with rescue, response, cargo transport and other support efforts, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.
“Can we respond to the next Sandy if we see sequestration unfold the way we fear it might unfold? We can see some problems in that arena,” Goheen said. “It’s hard to fathom that it would not impact readiness in some way.”
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have both indicated their aversion to sequestration, especially when it comes to defense. But their public jostling has mostly focused on the high-stakes political fight over expiring Bush-era tax cuts while all but ignoring the across-the-board cuts that would hit defense and nondefense budgets. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that there are internal White House deliberations on a plan to delay the sequester for six months to a year and replace it with a series of targeted spending cuts and tax increases.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has given only bare-bones details on how it would implement sequestration. In a report released just after the Democratic National Convention in September, OMB said most nondefense discretionary programs — including the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — would see their budgets fall by 8.2 percent if no deal is reached to avert the cuts. The Pentagon, National Guard, Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration and other discretionary defense efforts would see a 9.4 percent reduction over the next decade.
Some department chiefs have spoken publicly about their early planning efforts. At a briefing Wednesday on holiday travel, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole told reporters he’d implement the cuts but “the bottom line is to keep the frontline security operations in full force, to keep the movement of people and goods moving smoothly.”
In June, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp told the TV show “This Week in Defense News” that he was considering a repeat of a late-1990s budget-cutting move by laying off engineers and budget and contract experts. “It’s going to be very, very significant,” he said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller predicted national security lapses if nearly $800 million gets sliced out of his annual budget through sequestration, telling a Senate panel in March that the cuts would “have a huge impact” on investigations, intelligence collection and workforce morale.
While furloughs for the FBI’s special agents and other intelligence professionals would be spread around, Mueller still warned: “It’d set us back to where we were many years ago and the impact of the sequestration would be felt for many years in the future.”
Budget wonks, congressional Democrats and a handful of interest groups have also attempted to give specifics on how the sequester would hamper vital non-DOD national security functions, including roughly $700 million per year in spending cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“The chances of bad things getting into this country in containers is going to go up,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and former Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.
Sequestration would put more sand in the gears of the federal criminal justice system, starting with layoffs and furloughs for guards and other administrators at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. U.S. attorneys and federal judges won’t get pink slips, but sequestration probably wouldn’t spare the assistant U.S. attorneys, investigators, bailiffs, clerks and other vital parts of the courtroom process.
“Every defendant facing trial who thinks they might have a bad outcome might want to risk it,” Lilly said. “They’re going to be blocking and pushing things off. On top of that, there’s a lot of bad people who are awaiting trail who won’t be tried.”
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sequestration would mean nearly a half-million dollars less per year for epidemiologists who helped piece together the recent fungal meningitis outbreak and less grant money for state public health officers who monitor for contagious diseases and biological warfare attacks.
“Those of us who help address our health threats every day — and see the potential for saving lives and money — think this is no time to let down our guard,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in a May report by the advocacy group Research America. Frieden added that the sequester, coupled with 50,000 state and local public health professionals who have already lost their jobs, ”will risk costly and deadly spread of disease and failures to prevent tragic and expensive health problems.”
National security isn’t the only thing exposed by the budget cuts. State and local governments itching to add new industries cannot greenlight as many permits if the Environmental Protection Agency has less funding for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. And the Agriculture Department’s team of thousands of meat inspectors can expect a combination of furloughs and layoffs that limit the number of days in operation for meat packers and poultry houses, which could also open up a potent attack line for foreign rivals trying to cut into U.S. exports.
“That’s something that competitors to American beef are going to publicize widely in Europe and Asia and other markets,” Lilly said. “Having that USDA stamp means a lot.”
Advocates for saving national security-themed budgets face several tough challenges as they try to save a share of the limited pot of money at the same time the White House and lawmakers are trying to shaving as much as $4 trillion from the deficit.
“Everybody is going to be battling,” said Bill Daley, the former Obama White House chief of staff. “Where in God’s name is New Jersey and New York going to go for the billions needed? Are they going to float bonds? I don’t think so.”
House Republicans have called outright for defense spending to get an exemption from sequestration. But so far, interest groups not connected with the military are being careful not to seek their own exemptions if it means more cuts fall on the Pentagon.
“Our members are foursquare in making sure the men and women in the armed forces have the tools and resources they need to not only defend us but also to keep themselves out of danger,” said Dale Moore, public policy deputy at the American Farm Bureau Federation. He said he wouldn’t criticize efforts to save defense spending. “But I guess to put it as simply as I can, if there’s going to be an impact because of that on the nondefense side, our hope is it’s fair and balanced across the board, that agriculture shouldn’t have to shoulder any more than anyone else.”
But any effort to save Pentagon spending could also help other parts of the budget that face the fiscal cliff, said Joel Packer, who is leading a coalition of health, education, law enforcement, science, housing, transportation and faith groups trying to protect nondefense discretionary spending levels.
“In a way, all the pressure or activity for preventing the defense cuts in the long run helps the nondefense side,” he said. “The more anxiety there is among defense suppliers, that actually helps us because I think we’re going to be linked together.”