WASHINGTON — The White House spent much of February warning about the dire consequences of automatic budget cuts, and as the cuts went into effect Friday and those consequences failed to materialize, questions are being raised about the administration's handling of the sequestration issue.
"President Barack Obama hopes to spark a pitchfork revolt against Republicans over sequester-induced budget cuts — but many Democrats fret that he's undermined the effort with an early strategy marred by hype, poor planning and muddled messaging," Politico reported Wednesday.
The automatic budget cuts, set to begin on March 1 and signed into law by Obama in August 2011, planned for $1.2 trillion in budget cuts spread over nine years and equally divided between domestic and defense spending. In 2013, around $85 billion in cuts are set to go into effect.
On Feb. 19, prior to the sequestration deadline, Obama blamed Congress for the sequestration, and said that the cuts would jeopardize the country's military readiness and "eviscerate" job-creating investments in education, energy and medical research:
"Emergency responders (and) their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded," Obama said. "Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventative care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings."
"I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it's happened and the lines in the airport aren't long, the world hasn't changed overnight," former Penn. Gov. Ed Rendell told Politico. "Some of this is going to kick in eventually — government workers will be furloughed, contractors will lose their jobs, people will start feeling this for sure — but it will take some time ... and it probably wasn't the best strategic path for the White House to follow."
Obama toned down some of his warnings as the budget cuts began, saying the budget cuts were "dumb," but were "not going to be an apocalypse." However, in the days following the sequestration deadline, media reports and Washington leaders have begun to dig into the claims made by the White House, and Obama.
A Politico story published Wednesday cited six White House claims regarding the sequester that "fell flat," including that Capitol Hill janitors will not get as much pay, that prosecutors will "let criminals go," that programs like Meals on Wheels will serve 4 million fewer meals to seniors, that teachers are getting pink slips due to sequestration, and that 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start.
During a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., took Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, to task for a White House claim that sequestration would cut vaccinations to children by 2,050 in Maryland. Harris pointed out that the president's budget made $58 million in cuts to the same program the sequester cut by $30 million.
"So actually, the president cut twice as much in his budget. Can I assume that the president's proposed cut would've reduced funding to 4,100 children in Maryland?" Harris asked. "Is it your testimony that under the president's proposed cut of $58 million in his budget to the 317 program, you could have avoided cuts to vaccines to children in Maryland?"
"We believe that we could've maintained vaccination levels, yes," Frieden said.
According to a Sunday Associated Press article, the Homeland Security Department — blaming sequestration — released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants facing deportation in February and had plans to release 3,000 in March.
However, an internal memo obtained by the House Judiciary Committee suggested that although the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency can hold as many as 34,000 illegal immigrants and criminal aliens, the department had around 31,000 when they began releasing them, and planned to reduce the number to fewer than 26,000 by March 31. The committee plans to hold a hearing on the issue soon.
Speaking at a Monday event, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the numbers cited by the Associated Press article were inaccurate, and said that career officials had decided that, due to sequestration, some low-level, low-risk detainees could be put into a supervised release program, and that they planned to continue that.
According to The Washington Times Tuesday, when Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service official Charles Brown asked to spread out the sequester cuts to minimize their impact, he was told to do nothing that would lessen the dire impacts of the cuts that Congress had been warned off.
"We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs. So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be," Brown, in the internal email, said his superiors told him.
The Agriculture Department disputed the report and said that Brown's idea to divide the cuts among a number of states was already part of their sequester plans.
Also on Tuesday, the administration announced that all public tours of the White House would be canceled due to the budget cuts. The self-guided tours were nixed due to staffing reductions, a senior administration official told CBS News.
The cancellations prompted Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, to propose an amendment that would prohibit the president from using federal money to travel to and from a golf course until the tours resumed. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, also criticized Obama, saying that if Abraham Lincoln could keep the White House open during the Civil War, Americans are entitled to answers as to why Obama can't do the same during sequestration.
Disappointed tourists could take solace in the fact that, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, promised shortly after the White House announcement, tours at the U.S. Capitol will continue.
"Planning for the possibility of sequestration has been underway for some time," Boehner said. "Consequently, alternative spending reductions have been implemented within the Capitol complex to ensure public tours and other regular activities can proceed as they normally would."
Amidst the sequestration debate, a congressional report surveying agency inspector generals and released Tuesday indicated that IG recommendations awaiting final agency action had a dollar value of potential savings amounting to more than $67 billion, the Federal Times reported.
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