Sequestration clock ticks louder

Congress only has until Jan. 2, 2013, to stop the oncoming train of forced budget cuts.

Congress is running out of time to avert across-the-board budget cuts. When the House and Senate return from recess in September, lawmakers will only have until Jan. 2, 2013, to pass a spending bill that eliminates $1.2 trillion or more from the federal deficit. Otherwise, sequestration takes effect.

If the House Armed Services Committee hearing held Aug. 1 is any indication, the friction between Congress and the White House on the matter is intense. During the hearing, which lasted nearly three hours, lawmakers clashed with Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, after Zients blamed Congress for the potentially disastrous fallout from sequestration. Close to an hour and a half of the hearing involved nearly unintelligible shouting matches, mainly between Zients and Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

In a particularly hostile exchange, Forbes pressed Zients on whether he believes “draconian defense cuts” are a sensible way to achieve agreement between the two political parties on Capitol Hill. Zients in turn directed the blame at Congress.

“What is holding us up right now is the Republican refusal to have the top 2 percent [of earners] pay their fair share,” Zients said.

Despite Republicans’ efforts to blame Democrats and vice versa, sequestration is a bipartisan problem. It is part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the same law that created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. Sequestration was meant to be a last-ditch measure if the so-called supercommittee members could not agree on $1.2 trillion of what would have been targeted and deliberately planned cuts over the next 10 years.

In a memo sent July 31, Zients sought to prepare agencies for the likelihood of sequestration and, at the same time, distance the Obama administration from responsibility for it. "The steps described above are necessary to prepare for the contingency of having to issue a sequestration order, but they do not change the fact that sequestration is bad policy, was never meant to be implemented and should be avoided through the enactment of bipartisan, balanced deficit legislation," Zients wrote. "The administration urges the Congress to take this course."

On Aug. 7, President Barack Obama signed the Sequestration Transparency Act, a law that requires OMB to explain by early September exactly what could be cut if Congress fails to prevent sequestration from taking effect.

“There is no amount of planning or reporting that will turn the sequester into anything other than the devastating cut in defense and domestic investments that it was meant to be,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing on July 26. “The sequester was passed by both Republicans and Democrats not as a policy we want to see enacted but as a forcing mechanism to get Congress to act in a serious, balanced way on deficit reduction.”

The new legislation also asks for a list of functions that are exempt from the cuts and “any other data and explanations that enhance public understanding of the sequester and actions to be taken under it.” And it directs leaders of federal agencies to consult with congressional appropriations committees and provide OMB with information “at the program, project and activity level.”

“While House Republicans remain committed to achieving the full spending reduction required by the Budget Control Act, we believe that we cannot solve our national debt crisis by deliberately permitting a national defense crisis, which is why we have a plan to replace those arbitrary cuts with other spending cuts and reforms," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Republican Conference and co-author of the Sequestration Transparency Act.

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