Story Summary

Sequestration: A kind of fiscal doomsday device

“Sequestration” is a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The cuts would be split 50-50 between defense and domestic discretionary spending.

It’s all part of attempts to get a handle on the growth of the U.S. national debt, which exploded upward when the 2007 recession hit and now stands at more than $16 trillion. The sequester has been coming for more than a year, with Congress pushing it back to March 1 as part of the fiscal cliff deal at the end of the last session.

It started with the 2011 standoff over the U.S. debt ceiling, when Republicans in Congress demanded spending cuts in exchange for giving the Obama administration the needed legal headroom to pay the federal government’s obligations to its bondholders. In the end, Congress and the administration agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts. About $1 trillion of that was laid out in the debt-ceiling bill and the rest imposed through sequestration — a kind of fiscal doomsday device that Congress would have to disarm by coming up with an equal amount of spending reductions elsewhere.

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SEATTLE — Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is back in the state highlighting what she says are devastating cuts coming from the automatic federal spending reductions known as sequestration.

The senator visited a Head Start class Monday in Seattle’s International District to meet with its director and to hear firsthand of the upcoming reductions.

“I’ve been doing this work for 15 years, and it’s the worst that I have seen,” said Janice Deguchi, director of the Denise Louie Education Center.

The center serves 57 children in the federally funded Head Start program.  Because of sequestration, the facility will have to make a 5 percent cut to its services.

The cuts are almost guaranteed to allow fewer kids into the program, which already has a long waiting list.

“Incredibly frustrated” is how Deguchi described the impending reductions.  “We have so little time to make up these cuts.”

Murray is head of the Senate Budget Committee and a key player in negotiations to reach a “grand bargain” on the nation’s fiscal problems.

“There are Republicans who are happy with where we are,” said Murray.  “They have one goal, and that is to make government smaller at whatever cost.”

Murray said a recently approved Senate Democratic budget over the next 10 years would cut nearly $1 trillion from spending, but would also include $1 trillion more in new tax revenue.

“I’m willing to compromise,” said Murray. “But I am not willing to compromise when it comes to saying it’s all going to be about spending cuts.”

Republicans, however, continue to hold the line on new revenue.

“The federal government wastes hundreds of billions of dollars each year,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in this weekend’s GOP radio address.  “We should spend only what we need to cover the constitutionally authorized functions of government and not a dollar more.”

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(Photo:
nwnewsnetwork.org)

RICHLAND, Wash. — Layoff notices were sent Monday to 235 Hanford nuclear cleanup site workers because of sequestration, or automatic federal budget cuts, the Tri-City Herald reported. The last day for most laid-off workers will be March 28.

In addition, other workers may lose their jobs as Department of Energy contractors cut back on work to subcontractors.

Most of the 235 jobs cut were union positions, the Tri-City Herald said, but the layoffs also included 27 nonunion positions. Several contractors are cutting spending by furloughing about 2,500 nonunion workers — requiring them to take paid or unpaid time off — but that cannot be required of union workers under collective bargaining agreements.

dornOLYMPIA — With the federal sequester now a reality, the local effects are becoming clear.

State Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn said Monday that at least $35 million in cuts to important education programs, including Head Start, are heading our way.

“I hold Congress responsible,” he said.

At a time when the Legislature is under a state Supreme Court mandate to add more money to education, any cutback at the federal level makes the hole that much deeper.

“Unless they (members of Congress) do something, it’s not coming,” said Dorn.

He added that the federal cuts will hit in four areas:  struggling districts ($2 million); struggling students ($13 million); special education ($11 million), and the popular Head Start program ($9 million), something that especially concerns Dorn.

“The only way you can make cuts is certain kids don’t get to come” into the program, he said. “You eliminate the slots.”

Dorn argues that cutting Head Start means more kids coming “unprepared” for kindergarten.

With the $35 million in federal cuts this year alone, “We’re going to give less services to kids that are already struggling,” Dorn said.

The schools chief said the federal cuts make it all the more critical that state legislators step up to the Washington Supreme Court mandate to add more money – upwards of $1 billion more – in this year’s budget for public schools.

“We’re 47th in the nation in class size,” he said.  “Something has got to be done.”

Dorn said last week’s state Supreme Court ruling striking down the legislative supermajority for tax increases will help, but with half the legislative session now over, schools still haven’t seen a dime of new money.

“I’m going to be watching the budget,” Dorn said. “If they think that schools need to be graded A, B, C, D, maybe the Legislature needs to be graded A, B, C, D.  Right now I wouldn’t say that they are getting their passing grade yet.”

Dorn said that in the next few days he’s going to be sending a letter to every state legislator telling them exactly how much he believes needs to be added to this year’s budget to fulfill the Supreme Court mandate, and exactly where he thinks it needs to be spent.

CongressWASHINGTON – Signaling a cease-fire of sorts in Washington’s bitter budget wars, Republican leaders in Congress and a senior White House official expressed optimism Sunday that they can reach a deal to avoid adding a painful government shutdown this month to the deep budget cuts that just began.

“I’m hopeful that the House and Senate will be able to work through this,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said he was “absolutely” committed to keeping the government running.

President Obama’s top economic aide, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said on the same program that the government will continue operating if Republicans keep their promises to extend the 2013 budget before the current spending bill expires on March 27.

“The president doesn’t believe in manufacturing another crisis,” Sperling said.

Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also sought to downplay the projected economic impact of the $85 billion in spending cuts that began Friday under the so-called sequester, and said they will not consider raising taxes on the wealthy, as the White House wants, to provide new revenue.

For more on this LA Times story, click here.

navalBREMERTON — At the crack of dawn Friday, freshman Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., greeted Puget Sound Naval Shipyard workers who could be hit hard by federal “sequestration” spending cuts.

Many of these men and women may soon have to take one unpaid day off a week until the fall as part of the federal budget sequester. That works out to a nearly 20% pay cut.

The Navy is Kitsap County’s largest employer — about 13,000 people who live, shop and eat in the community.

“Anywhere within walking distance we have a lot of lunch places.When the lunch happens at the shipyard, you see a significant amount of people coming out,” said Mike Strube of the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce.

Many of them head to Noah’s Ark, a local landmark that’s been serving burgers since the 1970s. Bianca Garguile’s grandfather opened the place. She said her customers are worried, and they’re not the only ones.

“They’re nervous and scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen and they rely on that income. Part of that is eating out, and we rely on that money so it’s scary for us,” said Garguile.

Kilmer, who represents the state’s 6th Congressional District, which encompasses the Olympic Peninsula, including Bremerton, said he is frustrated that House Speaker John Boehner called a congressional recess and sent everyone home.

“I think we should be back in D.C. trying to get this solved. We need to get to work,” said Kilmer.

Temporary workers have been told they could be laid off.  The naval base was planning to hire 500 additional workers in January but held off because of the looming cuts.

obamaWASHINGTON — Politics trumped progress on Friday as President Barack Obama and Republican leaders traded blame for $85 billion in forced spending cuts after they failed to come up with a compromise to avert the harshest impacts.

The president Friday night signed an order required by law that set in motion the automatic, government-wide cuts.

Obama and congressional leaders from both parties met for about 45 minutes at the White House, but no agreement emerged to avert the cuts that both sides oppose.

Click here for the White House’s fact sheet on how sequestration will affect Washington state

The House speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, emerged with the same talking points he has been repeating for weeks. He said he would not agree to the president’s demand that the cuts be replaced with a deficit reduction deal that includes new taxes on upper-income earners.

QUIZ: How much do you know about sequestration?

Obama sought to dial back some of the rhetoric. Most Americans, he said, won’t immediately feel the effects of the complex process known as sequestration, which is expected to unfold like a slow-motion budgetary car crash.

“The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy — a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day,” Obama said after meeting congressional leaders for less than an hour in the Oval Office. “This is not going to be an apocalypse…. It’s just dumb. And it’s going to hurt.”

The pain of $85 billion in across-the-board cuts will kick in next month when agencies are forced to order air traffic controllers, food inspectors, prosecutors, janitors and other federal workers to take one or two days of unpaid leave for every two-week pay period. Most federal agencies are required to give workers at least 30 days’ notice of any furloughs.

The slow ramp-up gives Obama and congressional Republicans time to strike a deal before the next crisis hits — a potential government shutdown. The legislation authorizing money to run the government expires March 27.

The GOP-led House plans to pass a budget bill next week, giving the Democratic-controlled Senate a chance to act in time to keep the government running.

“I’m hopeful that we won’t have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we’re dealing with the sequester at the same time,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters after the White House meeting.

The Justice Department and National Labor Relations Board issued furlough notices ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline. The vast majority of furloughs at other agencies are not expected to begin until April.

The acting head of the Internal Revenue Service, Steven T. Miller, informed employees that they would not be furloughed until after tax-filing season ends this summer. They then would need to take five to seven days of unpaid leave before Sept. 30.

The Pentagon said it would furlough most of its 800,000 civilian employees one day a week — amounting to a 20% pay cut — with notifications coming this month.

Except for military pay and a few other accounts, all the Pentagon’s 2,500 budget accounts will be cut by up to 15% for the rest of the fiscal year, as the Defense Department is required to cut spending by $42.7 billion in 2013.

“As the year goes on, it will be unmistakable,” Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of Defense, said of the effect. “It’s not subtle.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Air Force would start reducing flying hours immediately, the Army would curtail training and the Navy would “gradually stand down” four of its air wings. A Navy air wing typically has seven or eight squadrons of aircraft.

When asked for specific actions the Pentagon would take this weekend, Carter did not name any. Over the next two weeks, he said, Army units scheduled to go to the National Training Center, a vast installation in the California desert, would see those plans canceled.

For the complete Los Angeles Times story, go here.

CongressWASHINGTON — About $85 billion in drastic, across-the-board federal spending cuts will begin to take effect Friday. The cuts are a product of the sequester, which Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to in hopes of making such slashing so unpalatable that it forces them to reach an alternative.

So what did many lawmakers do the day before the painful cuts take effect?

Skip town.

“I think the sequester is crazy, I think the president had to show more leadership, Congress should do more,” said Rep. Peter King, a Republican heading back to New York. “But just to sit here by myself serves no purpose.”

King was one of many congressmen who, before noon on Thursday, walked down the Capitol steps and into awaiting cars to leave Washington. Democrats criticized Republicans for not even sticking around when the cuts start coming; Republicans, in turn, blasted Democrats for not stepping up to do more to rein in spending.

Thus, there was plenty of blame to go around — but not a lot of action.

There will be some movement Friday, if for no other reason than that’s when Obama would be required to start implementing the cuts through the end of the current fiscal year.

Also, the president is set to meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House.

Expectations for that meeting are low. Most observers think both sides will use the occasion to underline their positions heading into the next round of the budget wars — a possible government shutdown on March 27, when current federal funding authority expires.

“I mean, we could stay here … and not pass … a bill,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., as he left the Capitol. “That’s not any better.”

As expected, a sharply divided Senate voted Thursday afternoon to reject alternative plans put forward by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Reid’s plan got 51 votes in support while McConnell’s got 38 — well shy of the 60 needed to clear the 100-member chamber.

Reid had proposed replacing the current spending cut package with a $110 billion blueprint that included placing new taxes on millionaires while cutting agriculture subsidies and defense spending. Most Republicans object to new defense cuts and have called any new taxes unacceptable.

McConnell wanted to give Obama more flexibility to pick a set of replacement cuts by March 15. Democrats considered the proposal a trap, designed to put more responsibility for the cuts on Obama’s shoulders. Critics in both parties considered the idea an abdication of Congress’s power of the purse.

– By Alan Siverleib and Dana Bash/CNN

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(Photo: Alternet.org)

WASHINGTON — Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have released “several hundred” immigrants from deportation centers across the country, saying the move is an effort to cut costs ahead of budget cuts due to hit later this week.

Announcing the news Tuesday, ICE officials said that the immigrants were released under supervision and continue to face deportation. After reviewing hundreds of cases, those released were considered low-risk and “noncriminal,” officials said.

The releases took place over the last week and were an effort “to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christiansen, citing uncertainty caused by a budget standoff in Washington.

“All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety,” she said.

Much of the federal government is braced to feel the pinch from $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts due to start Friday. Both Republicans and Democrats have said they oppose the cuts, but the two parties cannot agree on a budget deal that would avert them.

ICE’s decision was praised by some who have long criticized the rise in detentions and deportations under the Obama administration. Human rights and immigration advocates have accused the administration of ramping up arrests in response to political pressure.

“We have long advocated for expanded use of alternatives to detention, a step we knew would save taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Ruthie Epstein of Human Rights First. “It is a shame that it took the threat of serious budget cuts to prompt this move. Even so, ICE’s decision makes clear that the government can save money by reforming its approach to immigration detention.”

Officials say the released detainees are under other forms of supervision, including electronic and telephonic monitoring. Their cases continue to proceed in court.

Still, some Republicans blasted the announcement as part of the White House’s attempt to gin up public outcry about the looming spending cuts. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the decision was a political ploy that put the public in danger.

“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hinted at the coming news Monday, when she outlined the impact the budget cuts would have on her agencies. Napolitano said ICE would not be able to maintain its inventory of detention beds if the department is forced to cut roughly 5% of its budget this year.

“Look, we’re doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester.  But there’s only so much I can do,” Napolitano said. “I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration.  How do I pay for those?  We want to maintain 22,000-some odd Border Patrol agents. I got to be able to pay their salaries.”

– By Kathleen Hennessy, Los Angeles Times

CongressOLYMPIA — Washington state is set to lose millions of dollars in federal aid unless Congress acts by March 1 to avoid a series of automatic spending cuts.

According to a document released by the White House Sunday, cuts to state schools, work-study jobs, law enforcement and other program would be just part of the more than $85 billion in national cuts, called the sequester.

The White House said Republican Congressman refusing to close tax loopholes will bring on the budget cuts. The automatic cuts stem from the federal government’s failure to lower the federal budget deficit back in 2011.

Examples of cuts in Washington state if sequestration takes effect, according to the White House:

  • Teachers and Schools: Washington will lose approximately $11,606,000 in funding for primary
    and secondary education, putting around 160 teacher and aide jobs at risk. In addition about 11,000
    fewer students would be served and approximately 50 fewer schools would receive funding.
  • Work-Study Jobs: Around 440 fewer low income students in Washington would receive aid to
    help them finance the costs of college and around 180 fewer students will get work-study jobs that
    help them pay for college.
  • Head Start: Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for approximately
    1,000 children in Washington, reducing access to critical early education.
  • Protections for Clean Air and Clean Water: Washington would lose about $3,301,000 in
    environmental funding to ensure clean water and air quality, as well as prevent pollution from
    pesticides and hazardous waste. In addition, Washington could lose another $924,000 in grants for
    fish and wildlife protection.
  • Job Search Assistance to Help those in Washington find Employment and Training:
    Washington will lose about $661,000 in funding for job search assistance, referral, and placement,
    meaning around 24,510 fewer people will get the help and skills they need to find employment.
  • Public Health: Washington will lose approximately $642,000 in funds to help upgrade its ability
    to respond to public health threats including infectious diseases, natural disasters, and biological,
    chemical, nuclear, and radiological events. In addition, Washington will lose about $1,740,000 in
    grants to help prevent and treat substance abuse, resulting in around 3800 fewer admissions to
    substance abuse programs. And the Washington State Department of Health will lose about
    $174,000 resulting in around 4,300 fewer HIV tests.
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