America Grapples With Sequester Fallout

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/6/2013, 11:36 a.m.

In the weeks leading up to the March 1 trigger, Obama and various federal agency heads had voiced their concerns about the cuts in a steady drumbeat of doom. Furloughs, budget cuts and delays could cripple Homeland Security, defense and law enforcement. Newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the $46 billion in cuts will definitely have an impact, but would not be as devastating as some contend, and certainly will not reduce the U.S. military to a second-rate power.

Obama decried the lack of action by Republicans, describing the across-the-board cuts as a meat cleaver decimating social programs when a balanced approach is needed.

"At a time when our businesses have finally begun to get some traction, hiring new workers, and bringing jobs back to America, we shouldn't be making dumb, arbitrary cuts to things that businesses depend on and workers depend on like education and research and infrastructure and defense," he said. "It's unnecessary, and at a time when too many Americans are still looking for work, it's inexcusable."

In a February 22 certification letter from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi to Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Gandhi noted that the District and the nation has operated under a cloud of uncertainty, with the biggest uncertainty coming from "measures that the federal government might take to reduce federal deficits during an era of austerity that may last for some time."

The Washington metropolitan area is particularly susceptible to sequestration because of the profusion of federal government agencies, defense contractors and ancillary companies and entities that depend on them. About 25 percent of District residents work for the federal government and federal civilian employment accounts for 28 percent of all wages and salaried jobs in the city. In addition, federal contracting produces thousands of jobs and pumps billions of dollars into the local economy.

Nissenbaum said sequestration is one piece of a much larger puzzle of financial challenges.

"What Congress does now sets the precedent, good and bad," she said. "Not tackling long-term debt will jeopardize these programs. We need investments but we cannot do that under these circumstances."

"We need the right mix to stabilize the debt which equals $1.5 trillion on top of what we've already done ... there needs to be a balance in revenues and spending cuts. There need to be no cuts to low-income entitlements and non-defense discretionary programs."

Of the $2.75 trillion in budget cuts to this point, about $1.6 trillion has come from spending cuts, she said, and Republicans insist that any deficit-reduction replacement deal include only spending cuts. Democrats want a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.

Sophia Kerby, of the Center for American Progress in Northwest, said Congressional Republicans put the economy in jeopardy during the debt ceiling debates in 2011 and again in 2012. She criticized Republicans for "threatening the economy by risking massive and harmful spending cuts that will hurt the middle class, damage the economy, kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, and harm the most economically vulnerable among us."

Kerby cited deep cuts to long-term unemployment benefits; suspension of workforce development programs; cuts to critical job-creating programs such as the Build America Bonds program, housing assistance, education and other programs; and budget cuts which will mean the loss of federal, state, and local public-sector jobs, which disproportionately employ women and African Americans.

Amber D. Ebarb, of the National Congress on American Indians in Northwest, said sequestration merely adds misery to the desolation that already encompasses these communities.

"We're very worried about the impact of the programs coming down," she said. "This is a major threat to tribal nations. It will limit resources of core services the tribes provide to their people ... we have a growing population with growing needs."