Latest White House sequester scare highlights state programs

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

The White House’s PR office rolled out its latest sequester-scare offensive Sunday night, complete with a state-by-state list of possible budget cuts.

In Ohio, for example, residents “will lose approximately $25.1 million in funding for primary and secondary education, putting around 350 teacher and aide jobs at risk,” said the White House’s statement about Ohio’s share of the sequester cuts.

The list of potential cuts in state funding was timed for Monday’s meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama spoke at the association’s dinner meeting Sunday night. He pitched a conciliatory message, saying that he was hoping to head off the budget cuts set to automatically go into effect March 1.

“I’m looking for good partners,” he claimed.

“While nobody in this room sees eye-to-eye on everything, we know that when we work together, Democrats and Republicans, north, south, east and west, we can accomplish so much more than we can on our own. …We’re stronger when we work together as a team,” he told his fellow politicians.

But the White House’s earlier statement carried a much harder message — that the budgetary pain would continue until the GOP-controlled House agreed to transfer more money from Americans to the federal government.

“The President is determined to cut spending and reduce the deficit in a balanced way, but he won’t stick the middle class with the bill. … Republicans should compromise and meet the President in the middle,” said the White House statement released Sunday.

On Tuesday, Obama will fly to the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Va., to highlight his decision to delay the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Middle East as result of the looming sequester cuts.

In response to the Sunday statement, GOP leaders and flacks urged the White House to better manage the spending cuts, and also to press the Senate’s Democratic majority to suggest an alternative set of spending cuts.

“Considering the House has twice passed legislation to avoid the sequester you would think [the] White House would be focused on getting the Senate to pass a plan that would do the same instead of creating more PR stunts,” said an email from Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee.

GOP officials also highlighted the Feb. 24 article by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who concluded the president has sought to “move the goalposts” set by the 2011 budget deal that established the sequester. Instead of implementing the spending cuts, he’s trying to renegotiate the deal to convert its spending cuts into more tax increases, said Woodward.

“When the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts,” Woodward wrote.

In 2011, Obama proposed the sequester cuts — worth roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years — as an exchange for the GOP’s agreement to raise the federal government’s debt limit up to $16 trillion to fund the government’s deficit spending past Election Day 2012.

Obama’s deputies say the sequester was intended as a stick to ensure that subsequent negotiations produced a package of tax increases and spending cuts that would trim the 10-year deficit by up to $1.5 trillion. The bipartisan “super committee” charged with coming up with such a deal failed to come to an agreement, triggering the sequester cuts.

But the president continues to demand more tax revenue to fund a more ambitious, far-reaching federal government. In December, for example, Obama and congressional Democrats blocked GOP efforts to keep taxes as they were, and forced a 10-year, over $600 billion tax increase.

Despite the increase, the federal debt is expected to reach at least $18.5 trillion — or roughly $30,000 per American — by the end of Obama’s second term because Obama has pushed to increase federal spending amid a stagnant economy that features high unemployment and stalled wages.

At the end of President George W. Bush’s term, the government’s debt was $11 trillion.

White House officials insist they’re not moving the 2011 goalposts because the president always wanted to raise taxes on wealthy Americans.

The demand for new taxes leads the White House’s new state-by-state list of sequester cuts.

“By not asking the wealthy to pay a little more, Republicans are forcing our children, seniors, troops, military families and the entire middle class to bear the burden of deficit reduction,” said the White House statement.

White House officials say they don’t have any control over how the sequester spending cuts are implemented, and have predicted they will cause air traffic delays, fewer food safety inspections, less law enforcement and fewer security checks at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the president and Congress made the modest cuts more jarring by choosing to delay the cuts for two months.

The two-month delay means that $85 billion in immediate and planned 2013 spending must be cut during the remaining 10 months of 2013, instead of during the entire year, as set by the 2011 agreement.

The cuts are also concentrated on so-called discretionary spending, because Obama demanded that federal entitlement programs be exempted from cuts.

However, because of federal accounting rules, actual spending cuts in 2013 will be less than $85 billion.

That’s because many 2013 spending decisions by agencies are only commitments to spend money over the next several years. For example, budget rules say the agencies must account for major contracts — such as building a warship or a bridge — in the year a program is launched, even though the federal checks will be sent out over a period of several years.

So, even if the $85 billion in cuts are fully implemented, it will only slice an estimated $42 billion from spending in 2013, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office.

“If lawmakers chose to prevent those automatic cuts each year without making other changes that reduced spending by offsetting amounts, spending would be $42 billion higher in 2013 and $995 billion (or about 2 percent) higher over the 2014–2023 period than is projected in CBO’s current baseline,” said CBO’s February report, titled “The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 to 2023.”

That $42 billion is only about 1 percent of 2013 spending.

But Obama and other White House officials are trying to dramatize the spending trims.

To meet the $85 billion target, the Pentagon will have to cut remaining 2013 commitments by 13 percent, while various non-defense agencies will have to cut their commitments by 9 percent, White House officials say.

That claim hides the fact that roughly half of those commitments won’t be funded until after 2013.

The White House’s state-by-state list tried to hype the pending cuts, and listed numerous examples of potential cuts within each state.

“Ohio will lose approximately $22 million in funds for about 270 teachers, aides, and staff who help children with disabilities … around 3,320 fewer low income students in Ohio would receive aid to help them finance the costs of college and around 1,450 fewer students will get work-study jobs that help them pay for college,” said a portion of the White House statement.

In Tennessee, residents “will lose about $681,000 in funding for job search assistance, referral, and placement, meaning around 24,050 fewer people will get the help and skills they need to find employment. … Up to 800 disadvantaged and vulnerable children could lose access to child care, which is also essential for working parents to hold down a job,” said the White House’s statement about Tennessee.

In Pennsylvania, “around 5,280 fewer children will receive vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza, and Hepatitis B due to reduced funding for vaccinations of about $361,000 … [and] lose approximately $1,213,000 in funds to help upgrade its ability to respond to public health threats including infectious diseases, natural disasters, and biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological events. In addition,” said the statement.

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