However reluctant he may have been politically, President Obama on Tuesday signed the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution locking in the sequester, and agencies began their long-dreaded move toward concrete action to apply $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe sent employees an email Tuesday saying sequestration “posed great challenges for the entire federal family” and sketched progress made since planning began in December to cut $425 million from the budget.
Some 80 percent of the reductions, he said, are from non-payroll items, such as grants, infrastructure programs, contracts, and operating and travel expenses. The remaining 20 percent do hit payroll, the memo added, which means furlough letters will go out the first week of April. “We understand that the furlough process will be difficult, and we remain committed to reducing its impact on employees and their families as best we can,” Perciasepe wrote.
A Secret Service official told Government Executive agency planning began in December and options under consideration include cuts in travel and equipment purchases, and furloughs. “Our protective mission and the level of security and vigilance we provide to those we protect cannot and will not be affected,” spokesman Brian Leary said.
At the Securities and Exchange Commission, a spokesman said no furloughs are planned, but “we are reducing hiring, travel, training, and investments in technology.”
A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study released late last week breaks down the law’s 50-50 split between mandatory defense and non-defense cuts totaling $109 billion annually over the next decade. The Pentagon would be hit with $42.7 billion in cuts each year, nearly all of it in discretionary programs. In nondefense programs, discretionary programs would be hit by $25.8 million annually, and Medicare would be reduced by $11.3 billion each year.
A CBS News poll released on Tuesday showed that 41 percent of respondents think sequestration will be bad for the country, with 28 percent saying it will be good. The percentage who believe the sequester will have no impact doubled, from 12 percent to 23 percent, over the past two weeks. Republicans are blamed for the across-the-board cuts by 39 percent and President Obama, by 35 percent. This represents another shift toward the Republican argument that the sequester cuts are preferable to no cuts, despite the president’s earlier vow that sequestration would never take place.
An array of Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have complained about sequestration’s impact on their home-district airports, following the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement last Friday that the budget blade will force it to close down 149 contract-run air traffic control towers.
Round-ups by left-leaning blogs such as Talking Points Memo and the Daily Kos quoted several complaints. “I am disappointed to learn of the FAA’s decision,” wrote Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. “There is plenty of waste that can be trimmed by administrators implementing the budget sequester and there is absolutely no need to put Columbia [Mo.] workers on unemployment because of the Obama administration’s poor choices on where to cut.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said the decision reflected “a troubling lack of priorities,” adding, “Throughout this decision-making process, I have been in touch with FAA and [Transportation Department] officials urging them to focus first on eliminating waste and trimming non-essential items in the FAA’s budget before they even consider shutting down essential safety operations.”
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., issued a statement saying “the FAA budget is being cut by 5 percent, while the FAA is cutting contract towers by 75 percent.” He said the agency must reevaluate its decision and promised to inquire into the role of public unions in the action.