Threat Of Sequestration Ruffles Capitol Hill
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
We begin this hour with two reports on the economy: in a moment, what the Federal Reserve did and did not do today, but first, the federal budget. Top administration officials agreed with House leaders today that sequestration is bad, really bad. But those across-the-board budget cuts are becoming more and more likely. That's because Republicans and Democrats can't agree on exactly how to reduce the deficit. If the House hearing today is any indication, neither side is ready for compromise, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: As chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Buck McKeon has been trying to get the Pentagon to describe how it will deal with a 10 percent cut to nearly every single defense program.
REPRESENTATIVE HOWARD MCKEON: This impasse and lack of a clear way forward has created a chaotic and uncertain budget environment for industry and defense planners.
ABRAMSON: So far, the Pentagon has insisted it is not planning for sequestration because it makes no sense to prepare for something that was only a fallback in case budget negotiations got totally stuck. Well, they are pretty stuck.
Today, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter finally put some planning numbers out there. The Pentagon would face at least 55 billion in cuts, starting January 2nd. Those reductions would also apply to all programs, including funds for troops in Afghanistan. Carter said the only way to protect active war-fighters would be to skimp on training for troops not yet in theater.
ASHTON CARTER: As a result, some later deploying units, including some deploying to Afghanistan, could receive less training, again, especially in the Army and the Marine Corps.
ABRAMSON: The Office of Management and Budget has announced that the president intends to exempt salary and benefits for uniformed personnel. That means the Pentagon will have to slash even deeper from equipment and planning. For example, Carter said the Pentagon would have to buy four fewer F-35s. That's its new high-tech fighter plane. Jeffrey Zients, acting director of OMB, said it's not just defense programs that will be hurt.
JEFFREY ZIENTS: The number of FBI agents, border patrol agents and transportation safety staff would decline. And the NIH would have to halt or curtail vital scientific research such as research into cancer and childhood diseases.
ABRAMSON: Such general estimates have been around for weeks. Republicans wanted meat-and-potato details about defense programs that would be cut. But proposing specific reductions is dangerous, of course. It gives the opposition something to criticize. So OMB's Jeffrey Zients refused to play along.
ZIENTS: I would suggest that our energy, our time, is much better spent avoiding sequestration through balanced deficit reduction rather than trying to massage numbers that we all agree will have a devastating impact.
ABRAMSON: When Republicans pushed for more detail, Zients stepped out of the role of obedient witness and went full partisan on them. Zients lectured congressman Jeff Miller of Florida about who was at fault for creating sequestration as a kind of doomsday device.
ZIENTS: I don't think anyone would debate whether sequestration was intended to happen.
REPRESENTATIVE JEFFERSON MILLER: But it is the law.
ZIENTS: Sequestration was the forcing function to balance deficit reduction.
MILLER: But it is the law.
ZIENTS: The root cause problem here...
MILLER: That is the law.
ZIENTS: ...is the refusal of Republicans to acknowledge...
ABRAMSON: Republicans lectured right back, leading to a series of did-not-did-so exchanges reminiscent of any schoolyard or the halls of Congress over the past year. The hearing did show that the government is now taking steps to prepare. Yesterday, Jeffrey Zients told department heads to get ready for discussions about how they will do this awful thing. Zients said it will be very complicated, but this exchange with Chairman McKeon shows it's basically pretty simple.
MCKEON: So you've listed what accounts will be exempt, and then everything else will be cut, line item by line item, across the board evenly.
ZIENTS: That's what the law says.
ABRAMSON: With the August recess and time off for campaigning, Congress has, at best, a few weeks of legislative time to come up with a better idea. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.