Senator: Feds Need to Know Consequences of Sequester

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Agency leaders should talk to federal employees now about the effects of the possible sequester if they have not already done so, a Maryland Democrat said on Friday.

“I think the federal workforce needs to know the consequences of March 1, and again as I said, whether it’s short-term or long-term, what happens if there is no better information on March 1,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., referring to the date when automatic spending cuts will take effect across government. “It’s a very tough assignment for an administrator, but I think they have to alert the workforce, particularly if you are an agency that has little discretion [over how to cut], other than the workforce.” Cardin made his remarks to reporters after a town hall with federal employees at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Defense and non-defense agencies face spending cuts between 9 and 13 percent in fiscal 2013 across all of their programs and accounts if Congress does not act to avoid the March 1 sequester. If an agency has to find more savings within its administrative accounts, which include employees’ salaries, then it can resort to furloughs or layoffs.

The Office of Management and Budget has offered generic guidance on what could happen under sequestration, saying furloughs should be a last resort. Defense agencies have released some details on their plans, including civilian hiring freezes and information on furloughs, if they become necessary. But most agencies have offered little guidance to frustrated employees, despite behind-the-scenes contingency planning and escalating rhetoric from both political parties as the deadline looms.

“It’s not a panic button. We’re there,” said Cardin. “We’re very close to the March 1 deadline.”

NIH, which hosted Friday’s town hall, has issued guidance “only in the most general way,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the agency’s director. “I think we are trying to be thoughtful, and only get to that point if we have to,” said Francis. Asked when that could be, he replied half-jokingly: “Maybe midnight on Feb. 28.”

The White House on Friday released a fact sheet on sequestration, detailing cuts to a range of federal programs including NIH research, as well as possible furloughs of law enforcement agents, attorneys and emergency responders. In response, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans agree sequestration is the wrong way to slash spending and have passed legislation to replace the cuts -- essentially telling President Obama the ball is now in his court. “Without a plan to prevent his sequester, the president is out of excuses,” Boehner said.

Obama has said he wants a mix of spending cuts and increased revenues as part of any plan – short- or long-term – to replace sequestration. Earlier this week, GOP lawmakers introduced legislation that would reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition to avoid sequestration this year.

At this point, with the deadline three weeks away, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

Uncertainty was very much on people’s minds during Friday’s event, which was part pep talk, part question-and-answer session. Cardin, who represents a state with a large federal presence, tried to boost morale while also offering an assessment of the political landscape. “You are the front lines of service, not only to our country but to our world,” Cardin told the NIH employees, ticking off the agency’s many accomplishments in the fields of science and medicine.

The senator said the prognosis for getting a long-term budget deficit deal done before March 1 was “not very bright” and that lawmakers are looking at short-term solutions. “I will support that because I want to avoid sequestration, but we need to get working now on the long-term substitute proposal.” Federal employees broke out into applause when Cardin said the budget deficit was not caused by government workers. “You are not responsible for that deficit,” he said.

The Democrat encouraged federal employees to “put a face” on the work that they do. “The reason why the federal workforce is under attack is because it’s an attack on government; it’s not an attack on what you do,” Cardin said. “So go out there, and say what you do, and how it’s important for what you do to have the certainty of a realistic budget.”

Employees also expressed frustration over the time and resources spent on planning for a possible sequester as well as the mandate that agencies have to spend all the money they are appropriated within the fiscal year. “Why can’t federal agencies be given an incentive for managing their funds prudently by being able to carry over excess funds into the next fiscal year, instead of trying to spend everything in one year?” asked one town hall participant over email. That question garnered applause from the audience, and Cardin said it made sense to look into including such incentives into the budget process.

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