Republicans blast administration over sequester implementation

Joint hearing turns combative as political parties square off.

US Capitol

House Republicans took federal officials to task for what they say is a reckless failure to plan effectively for spending reductions mandated by the $85 billion in budget cuts known as the sequester, in an occasionally combative joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, chairman of the subcommittee on federal workforce, scolded the Obama administration in his opening statement, saying agencies should have spent "more time planning and less time posturing," for the across-the-board spending cuts in the Budget Control Act of 2011. "Sequester was the law of the land," Farenthold said. "Why did federal agencies not have a contingency plan?"

Democrats on the panel countered that the across-the-board cuts mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011 prevented agencies from implementing the cuts in a targeted or programmatic way. Further, they noted that it is premature to accuse agencies of being slow to share their plans for implementing cuts, since the deadline was set by Congress for April 1 of this year.

"Federal agencies cannot selectively choose which programs or functions to fund, or not fund," said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.). "Only explicit congressional action can avoid the widespread consequences from implementations of across-the-board cuts."

Republican members sought hard numbers on plans by the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce on bonuses paid to federal employees. Hari Sastry, deputy assistant secretary for resource management at the Department of Commerce, and Michael Young, director of the office of budget and program analysis at the Agriculture Department, said that agencies were not planning to award bonuses under the sequester.

Agency after agency acts surprised that a law signed by the president 19 months ago actually meant what it said. -- Rep. Darrell Issa.

In advance of the hearing, USDA announced its intention to use its limited authority to make 7-percent transfers between accounts in individual agencies, said Young. The idea, Young said, is to "reduce the disruptive impact of the sequester."

Sastry, whose office said he was testifying reluctantly, said in his prepared testimony that "the planning process has been confounded by the fact that we are currently operating under budgetary uncertainty" under the current continuing resolution. If a new continuing resolution currently under consideration in the Senate becomes law, both Commerce and USDA will receive regular appropriations.

But both the departments came under fire for not making cuts to reduce their overall spending in advance in order to reduce the amount of the savings required under the sequester. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee, said, "agency after agency acts surprised that a law signed by the president 19 months ago actually meant what it said."

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