The sequester is now nine days away.
At a news conference Tuesday President Barack Obama called the sequester a “meat-cleaver approach” to budget cutting. It’s designed with arbitrary budget cuts that would be “so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth. And so this was all designed to say we can't do these bad cuts; let’s do something smarter. That was the whole point of this so-called sequestration. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t compromise. They haven't come together and done their jobs, and so as a consequence, we've got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen next Friday.”
Next Friday all of the machines that make the federal government will not be turned off. It’s more like a homeowner flipping a fuse switch, lights will go dark in one room, then the next, and so on, and so on.
The president yesterday was clear about his concerns. “Emergency responders like the ones who are here today – their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded. Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings,” the president said. “And already, the threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to delay an aircraft carrier that was supposed to deploy to the Persian Gulf. And as our military leaders have made clear, changes like this – not well thought through, not phased in properly – changes like this affect our ability to respond to threats in unstable parts of the world.”
So will Congress do something? Not likely. At least not yet. Republicans almost immediately dismissed the president’s call for a fix to the sequester. At least his fix. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is calling it the “Obamaquester” (never mind that more Republicans voted for it than Democrats). He blamed the president and said “his sequester is the wrong way to cut spending.” But the Republican plan is to cut even deeper, especially domestic programs, and come up with a balanced budget in a decade.
So what’s the best case scenario for Congress? The Republicans fold. The sequester as its structured is a guarantee that the economy will shrink, not grow. That’s a terrible economic policy, austerity, with a failed track record in every country that’s tried that route. Spain recently ended its 32-month experiment with austerity after its economy crumbled, losing some 850,000 jobs, and an unemployment rate of 26 percent.
A second best case scenario is that a few Republicans join the House Democrats and support their plan. The Democrats’ plan is, by far, the best alternative for Indian country.
The most important element in the Democrats plan is that it recognizes that the federal spending problem is a long-term, demographic issue, not an emergency that requires immediate cuts. In fact the bill eliminates the sequester this year and calls for a balanced approach to the budget over the next decade, a mix of tax hikes and spending limits.
This bill, of course, is a long-shot in the Republican House. But if enough Republicans joined with the Democrats, it could happen. Unlikely, though.
Senate Democrats also have a plan, and if that one could pass in the Senate, it could set up a negotiation with the House. But most likely that will happen after March 1, not before.
The problem in both houses of Congress is that most Republicans are now bracing themselves for the sequester, arguing that it represents the leverage to begin real spending cuts.
Let’s assume Congress will do nothing. (Remember there will only be five days before March 1 when Congress returns to town.)
So happens next Friday? The Pentagon may begin the furlough process this week. Reuters news agency said Congress will be notified that 800,000 employees will be placed on unpaid leave for up to 22 days before September 30, 2013. (The law requires Congress be told 45 days before the furloughs, and individual employees be given 30 days notice.)
At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, not only will there be budget cuts, but there is a plan surfacing to boost student fees by some 230 percent. Native American students are not required to pay tuition, but do pay student fees that total $215 per semester. Those fees would jump to $715 to boost Haskell’s budget (including a new fee for laundry).
Other federal Indian programs will start to see more detailed budget numbers after the sequester officially begins.
One rub in all of this is the time involved. All of the cuts required by the sequester have to occur before September 30, making their impact worse.
“There is no way to do this — $85 billion over that short window of time?” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “There is no way, if you follow the law written by Congress, that implementation of these cuts would not have the draconian, drastic effects that the president talked about today.”
The sequester is now nine days away.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.