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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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Broad budget cuts may lead to flight delays, the White House warned Friday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / 2011)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday issued a travel advisory: Due to a budget standoff in Washington, flights will be delayed.

That was the message Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delivered at the daily White House briefing, as he outlined the impact across-the-board budget cuts will have on air travel.

LaHood described a nettlesome set of potential problems if, as scheduled, $600 million is eliminated from the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget this year as part of the so-called sequester cuts set to kick in March 1.  More than 100 air traffic control towers will be closed, an additional 60 towers may eliminate overnight shifts, staffing at airports across the country will be cut back, delaying flights up to 90 minutes at peak times, LaHood said.

“It’s going to be very painful for the flying public,” the former Republican congressman said.

LaHood is the latest cabinet member to come forward to paint a grim picture of the federal government under the slashed budget. Obama stood with first responders earlier this week and warned that basic police and fire services could be curtailed if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement to delay the cuts.

The warnings have Republicans, who also once decried the potential impact of the spending cuts, accusing the White House of trying to gin up panic. Increasingly, Republicans have suggested the reduced spending would have minimal immediate impact and might force Washington to tighten its belt.

LaHood denied exaggerating the effect.

“And the idea that we’re just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense,” he said.

LaHood said all 47,000 FAA employees will be furloughed for at least one day per pay period and the department had begun talks with the unions and airlines about the changes. He said curtailed staffing would mean fewer air traffic controllers monitoring the skies and slower repair and maintenance. The full impact of the result would likely be felt by April 1.

“And once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights,” LaHood said.

The spending cuts at issue were approved by the White House and Congress n 2011 and designed to be so loathsome they would force the two parties to compromise on a broader deficit and debt reduction deal. That deal, however, has been elusive and a week before the cuts hit, there’s little sign of a serious effort to reach even a short-term agreement.

LaHood said he has been talking with his former Republicans colleagues on the Hill, preparing them to hear from constituents unhappy with the travel delays and urging them to “come to the table.” In the last Congress, House Republicans passed two bills that would have replaced some of the spending cuts, although both those bills are dead.

Next week, the Senate is expected to hold votes on dueling measures that would delay the cuts, although neither is expected to pass.

LaHood acknowledged the White House hopes he may serve a political purpose.

“I would describe my presence here with one word — Republican. They’re hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party,” he said.

– By Kathleen Hennessey / Los Angeles Times

cutsSEATTLE — Steep, across-the-board federal budget cuts that are set to automatically take effect March 1 if Congress and the White House can’t reach a deal by then could harm the Puget Sound economy and put thousands of jobs at risk.

Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., noted that a new Army report says that Washington, with its large military presence, is one of the states with the most to lose if the cuts kick in.

If there is no deal before the March 1 deadline, $85 billion in federal budget cuts start to take effect. That is 9 percent of non-defense spending and 13 percent of defense spending over the next seven months.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord would take a big hit as Army spending in Washington state would be cut by $461 million this year. More than 11,000 Army and civilian jobs would be affected, with many forced to take 22 furlough days before Oct. 1.

Heck said his 10th Congressional District, around Olympia, relies heavily on federal money and he worries that unemployment will skyrocket.

And it’s not just the military. With the cutoff of federal money, police departments and public schools likely would see cuts.

The White House warns of furloughs at the FBI, the Border Patrol and with food safety inspectors.

The state reportedly projects it will cost nearly 42,000 jobs in Washington and cost the state economy $3.4 billion.

The spending cuts were mandated by Congress as part of an agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling in 2011. The idea was to force Congress to reach an agreement on reducing the federal deficit. But so far it hasn’t worked.

Congress has another week to try to reach an agreement.  The cuts, if they do kick in, will not start all at once on March 1.

Several federal programs would be exempt from cuts, however, including Social Security, Medicaid, the VA, student grants and low-income Medicare subsidies, among others.