Politics Punctuate House Sequestration Hearing

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the Republican Study Committee Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the Republican Study Committee J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A House hearing on Tuesday, advertised as a discussion on how some agencies are implementing sequestration, focused more on partisan politics than on government management.

Republican lawmakers pressed agency officials on the necessity of furloughs, how much pre-sequester planning they did before the governmentwide spending cuts took effect on March 1, and why they haven’t asked Congress for more flexibility in administering the sequester. Democrats argued that Congress was to blame for imposing sequestration, and agencies are simply abiding by the law’s restrictions to cut the same percentage across every program, project and activity within the overall budget.

Nobody was happy, least of all the witnesses from the Agriculture Department, Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission caught in the political crossfire.

Here’s one such exchange from Tuesday’s hearing: Rep. Matthew Cartwright, D-Pa: “The whole country understands that it is Congress that writes the laws, and it is the law that mandated across the board cuts, and it’s the law that restricts federal agencies from defying Congress’ intent in the implementation of across the board cuts.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaking to witness David Robbins, FCC’s managing director: “Mr. Robbins, when Congress passes a law, does it automatically become the law?”

Robbins: “No, the president has to sign it.”

Jordan: “Oh, I forgot, that’s an important lesson…Mr. Young [Michael Young, Agriculture’s director of budget and program analysis], is that your understanding of how the law works? Once the Congress passes something, that the executive branch, the president has to sign it?”

Young: “Yes, sir.”

Jordan: “Mr. Sastry [Hari Sastry, Commerce’s deputy assistant secretary for resource management], is that how you understand it works in America, too?” Sastry: “Yes.”

Jordan to Sastry: “And to your knowledge, the president signed this law didn’t he?” Sastry: “Yes.”

Jordan: “Imagine that.”

And so it went.

The panel’s witnesses, in broad and relatively brief remarks, said they’ve been planning for sequestration since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act, which required the spending cuts to begin in 2013. Republican lawmakers questioned why agencies had not asked for more flexibility to transfer funds, known in government parlance as reprogramming authority, and asked whether savings could have been found elsewhere to avoid furloughs. “You’ve had 20 months to get ready for this,” Jordan said. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent 17 federal agencies a letter last month asking them to identify unnecessary or wasteful agency programs that could be eliminated as an alternative to the mandatory spending cuts mandated by sequestration.

The federal government has to produce $85 billion in spending cuts in fiscal 2013. Agencies have to submit a detailed sequestration plan to Congress by April 1.

Officials stressed the budget-cutting restrictions imposed by sequestration, which requires across-the-board reductions to every program, project and activity within an agency. “With roughly 95 percent of our budget going to our workforce, rent, utilities and contracts, it will be a daunting task to find the $17 million of cuts required under the sequester without adversely impacting our workforce and the mission of our agency,” said Robbins, who added that the FCC is doing everything it can to avoid furloughs.

As for Commerce, it has to slash $567 million from its total budget, including $270 million in cuts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminsitration’s budget.

Agriculture has to shave $2 billion from its books during the remainder of the fiscal year. Several programs administered by the Agriculture Department are exempt from sequestration, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Agriculture’s fiscal 2012 budget was $151.8 billion -- the 5th largest budget in the federal government.

Agriculture actually has some limited flexibility in managing the cuts, which allows transfers of up to 7 percent among certain accounts within an individual USDA agency. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday he would use that flexibility to avoid some administrative disruptions regarding certain Farm Service Agency payments. But, according to Young, the extra wiggle room Agriculture has would not negate the expected furloughs of thousands of food inspectors -- a possibility that has riled both Republicans and Democrats. “The interchange authority would not assist [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] in addressing its shortfall because there are no other accounts from which the agency could transfer funds to offset the shortfall,” Young said.

Some Republicans looked to find savings in federal pay and compensation. Jordan and Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-Tenn., both asked Young whether food inspectors receive bonuses, and how much they were worth. Young said that such employees have received bonuses but that he did not know the total amount of bonus money paid out to employees over the past few fiscal years.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., asked officials to calculate the potential cost-savings in their agencies from recalibrating the prevailing wage.

That type of policy granularity notwithstanding, the hearing was largely a public platform for lawmakers to sound off on sequestration.

“When you cut $85 billion out of a budget over a course of seven months, there are consequences,” said Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “Duh.”

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