More Fixes Won’t Fix Sequestration’s Harms

Never let it be said that Congress can’t get anything done because bipartisanship is dead. Look at how swiftly Republicans and Democrats jointly acted when the air traffic controller furloughs started inconveniencing frequent flyers.

This isn’t the first time Congress has created a loophole in the law that mandates across-the-board cuts.

When the Agriculture Department announced that it would have to furlough the inspectors who must be in meat, poultry and egg processing plants, Congress found funding to keep the inspectors on the job.

Took part of it out of the department’s fund for grants to help more schools serve breakfast to low-income students.

I’m hardly the first to note that Congress has evinced no significant concern about other delays sequestration seems likely to cause — or those that will worsen.

Nor about other harms the cuts will cause — not merely furloughs that will create hardships for some as-yet unknown number of federal employees, but as many as 750,000 actual job losses in both the public and private sectors.

And lost benefits for jobless workers who’ve been unemployed long enough to qualify for federally-funded unemployment insurance benefits. Nineteen states have already rolled out cuts averaging $120 a week. The longer states wait, the bigger the cuts will have to be.

Some of the other cuts have also gotten considerable press coverage.

So you probably know that Head Start programs have begun paring back enrollment. Some of them already have waiting lists — a far more consequential sort of delay than some extra hours in an airport.

The U.S. Secretary of Education says that about 70,000 children won’t have the early learning opportunities and other benefitse.g., health services, that Head Start provides.

One Head Start director warns that parents may have to quit their jobs to tend to their children — not unlikely, since unsubsidized child care can cost more than they earn.

And sequestration has taken a bite out of the block grant that helps pay for subsidized care.

Also out of federal programs that fund subsidized housing. Long waiting lists for housing assistance are already common. And the number of years applicants wait are often far longer than the number of hours fussed airline travelers waited.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 140,000 fewer households will have housing vouchers by early next year. Others, it says, may face rent increases — perhaps beyond their ability to pay.

Yet funds for homeless services will be cut too.

But I’m cherry-picking here, just as many say Congress just did. Those interested can find many other examples in the weekly reports the Coalition on Human Needs is publishing.

No one, I think, would doubt that Congress hasn’t acted to avert impacts like the aforementioned because the people affected don’t have the political clout that frequent fliers and agribusinesses do.

I think we’re looking at something more difficult to deal with than a power imbalance, however.

The air traffic controller and food safety inspector furloughs caused — or were about to cause — large, clear, nationwide impacts. In many other cases, the proverbial is only beginning to hit the fan — or more precisely, a vast number of fans.

Most of the genuine news we have about the impacts on low-income people and the programs that serve them are local — and often likelihoods rather than sure things.

This is partly because program directors, in many cases, don’t yet know what their share of the cut will be. Even those who do are mostly still figuring out how they’ll manage — and give various answers when asked.

We also don’t get a whole picture because stories tend to get written when some advocates have gotten reporters interested. And, face it, some programs have more heart-tug appeal than others.

In one respect, it’s good that we’re getting stories. In fact, this is a welcome — if unintended — side effect of the air traffic controller save.

Yet, in another respect, it’s dangerous. Because the more major media focus on a handful of programs — and the more grassroots campaigns call on Congress to save one or another — the more likely other FAA-type fixes become.

And most federal agencies, unlike FAA, don’t have a pot of money they can tap that they didn’t need to spend this year anyway.

So a reprieve for some programs will mean deeper cuts for others. Like as not they’ll be programs that benefit low-income people — especially those that don’t have an effective public voice or lend themselves so well to poignant individual stories.

House Republicans seem open to this. “The main thing,” says Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK), “is to secure $85 billion in savings. We are not wedded to where the savings come from.”

But the fundamental issue is the savings, a.k.a spending cuts. Sequestration is a singularly dumb way to address a problem that’s been blown out of all proportion, i.e., the federal deficit.

Yet, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has testified, deep cuts at this point — even if not across-the-board — are likely to lead to less deficit reduction.

And the whole approach is unbalanced, since sequestration comes on top of $1.5 trillion in cuts and a mere $620 billion or so in additional revenues.

Congress ought to get rid of sequestration, which none of its members wanted — or thought would come to pass. And some, who will remain nameless, should back off their cuts-only/cuts-now solution to the long-term deficit.

That, I hope, will be the message that all who care about the well-being of our nation’s children, seniors and everyone in between will deliver. Because if we don’t hang together … Well, you know the rest.

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