NPR

Across-The-Board Cuts Make Sequester Uniquely Painful

Government agencies don't have much leeway when they plan for budget cuts that are scheduled to take effect at the end of the week. The sequester law was designed to make it almost impossible for the government to dampen the impact.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

When people talk about the deep federal budget cuts, that are scheduled to take effect on Friday, they often come back to the same phrase. It's popped up on our air dozens of times in the last few weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Across-the-board spending cuts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: An ax across-the-board.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Across-the-board.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Across-the-board.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Across-the-board, the federal spending cuts.

WERTHEIMER: Across-the-board is shorthand for a feature of the sequester that makes this law uniquely painful.

NPR's Ari Shapiro explains.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Imagine that you had to cut your household budget by nine percent. You might find a few big things to get rid of: a second car, cable TV, vacations or restaurant meals. That's not how sequester works. The law says you have to cut every program, every activity, by about the same percentage.

Todd Harrison, at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, takes that back to the household budget analogy.

TODD HARRISON: So you have to cut your mortgage payment by nine percent, your cell phone bill by nine percent, your gas bill by nine percent. Some of those things you could do. But cutting your mortgage payment by nine percent, you may end up in foreclosure.

SHAPIRO: That's what people mean when they say sequester cuts are across-the-board. Government projects that are on the chopping block all have to shrink equally. It doesn't matter whether a program is bloated and obsolete or lean and essential.

DANNY WERFEL: It's not like the agencies can move money amongst accounts, but it's even worse than that.

SHAPIRO: Danny Werfel, from the Office of Management and Budget, recently spoke to reporters at the White House.

WERFEL: The way the sequester law is written is that even underneath the account - even at the program, project and activity - they all need to be cut by the same percentage. So, for example, FAA, they have to cut resources in a way that's going to impact the air traffic controller workforce.

SHAPIRO: If that sounds masochistic, well, that was kind of the point. The sequester was designed to be so awful that Congress would have to come up with alternative savings to prevent this law from taking effect. Two days before the deadline, that's not how it's working out. Republicans are now saying they would support a law to steer the $85 billion in cuts someplace else.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spoke at the White House after the president met with governors.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: The reality is nobody is arguing that sequestration's the right way to cut. What we're saying to the president, it's your job as the chief executive to outline to the Congress how you would prioritize these reductions, how you could cut $85 billion and protect critical services.

SHAPIRO: The president says cuts of that size will hurt seniors, kids and working-class Americans no matter how you slice it. He insists that the savings need to come from a mix of cuts and new tax revenues. But Republicans in the House say no.

So it seems that Obama now faces an unpleasant choice: swallow the sequester designed for maximum pain, or swallow cuts he doesn't want in a way that might be slightly less painful.

Reporters asked White House spokesman Jay Carney several times whether the president would sign a less bad bill that only had cuts. Carney refused to say.

JAY CARNEY: If you could imagine a bill that introduced enough flexibility to do away with all the bad things, would you agree to it? Well, that bill doesn't exist. It can't be written, not with the size of these cuts, and the fact that they need to be implemented in such a short period of time in this fiscal year.

SHAPIRO: So today, agencies are scrambling to figure out how to subtract a chunk from every program. It's not the first time this has happened.

Richard Kogan, at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, helped write the first sequester law when he worked for Congressional Democrats in the '80s.

RICHARD KOGAN: The first sequestration, 11.7 billion in fiscal year 1986, was so small compared to the 85.3 billion we're talking about right now, that it was simply a lot easier to do.

SHAPIRO: This sequester is scheduled to last nine more years. But Congress could undo it any time, so agencies are gambling on the future. They could try to postpone short-term pain, betting that Congress will solve the problem. But even that could backfire, says Kogan.

KOGAN: The Catch-22 there is that this actually decreases the likelihood that the problem will be solved quickly, because they have avoided the things that are most immediately visible and that would cause the most public and press uproar.

SHAPIRO: If that sounds like a lose-lose proposition, well, that was pretty much the premise of the sequester in the first place.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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