When an e-mail surfaced this week that seemed to indicate spending reductions for U.S. agricultural inspections were guided by public relations, Republicans pounced. They said it proved their suspicions that the administration is manipulating cuts for political gain.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture responded quickly with more e-mails that it said showed the author was actually agreeing with a proposal to ease the burden of the reductions.
The episode illustrates the fierce debate about how much leeway U.S. agencies have in carrying out the $85 billion in mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
“For Republicans who don’t want to be blamed for sequestration, it’s important to say there’s more flexibility than you think there is. Don’t blame us,” said Gordon Adams, a U.S. foreign policy professor at American University in Washington who managed the national security budget at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. “We’re at the finger-pointing time.”
The USDA e-mail came from a staffer at the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Raleigh, North Carolina. After asking for latitude on cutting aid to farmers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to fish farming, he said he was told that however reductions would be managed, “you need to make sure that you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”
The implication, said Republican Representative Kristi Noem of South Dakota at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee this week, is that the department may not be using all of the flexibility available to it under sequestration to damage.
The e-mail portrays a USDA that gives higher priority to “staying consistent with the administration on what they previously said than what they may decide to do to protect producers,” Noem told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the hearing.
The e-mails were trumpeted on the websites of Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee and news outlets such as Newsmax and The Washington Times, which favor conservative viewpoints.
The USDA employee’s suggested approach to cuts had already been communicated to Congress as part of a previous budget proposal and would be incorporated into sequestration as a way to avoid furloughs of employees, spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in an e-mail yesterday.
The statement that employees shouldn’t contradict what the department had told Congress wasn’t referring to sequestration, Rowe said. It was referring to the 2013 budget proposal the agency has submitted to Congress, she said.
“USDA is committed to doing all we can to minimize the impact of sequester,” Rowe said.
A week into sequestration, it’s not clear which side is winning the public relations battle, as the parties head into negotiations to avoid a March 27 deadline when the government loses the authority to spend money.
Obama hosted a March 6 dinner with Republican senators in hopes of breaking an impasse on the budget, a rare step for a president who has been accused of failing to lavish personal attention on lawmakers.
The president’s change in tone is necessary because he’s overplayed his hand on sequestration, said Republican Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“If you cry wolf loud enough, the sequestration goes on for days and weeks and months and nobody notices, then you really can save $85 billion out of $3.4 trillion and the world won’t come to an end,” Lucas said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington.
Adams at American University said it’s hard to declare a winner in the budget battle so far in part because the pain of the sequestration hasn’t really hit. It may never for most Americans, he said.
“While this is a real management challenge, we’re seeing a lot of overstatement,” he said in an interview. The Defense Department has broad discretion to move money around in its operations and maintenance account, for example, Adams said.
The law’s intent was that every program in the federal budget would face the same cuts, said William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based group that promotes legislative compromise.
“If it turns out they’re not doing this across the board cut, then it becomes a political problem,” because lawmakers where the reductions hit will react angrily, Hoagland, who as a Senate Republican budget staff aide helped negotiate the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law that the sequestration is based upon, said in an interview.
According to the law, cuts must come equally from projects, programs and activities, Hoagland said. Even so, some agencies have more discretion to spread the pain out over broader budget accounts than others, he said.
“It’s very messy at the agency level in terms of impact,” he said.
So far, some of the worst-case sequestration scenarios haven’t panned out, and budget experts predict the pain will come slowly as more workers are furloughed and agency services are curtailed.
Administration officials say threats of big cuts to popular National Park Service destinations, or to airport services that will delay travelers, aren’t scare tactics as Republicans have alleged. Rather, they are real-world effects of trimming $85 billion over the remaining months of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the cuts would lead to flight delays of 90 minutes at peak times at airports such as those in New York and Chicago. The Federal Aviation Administration will begin furloughing staff on April 1, and more than 230 control towers at smaller and mid-size airports may be closed.
“Sequester doesn’t allow for moving money around,” LaHood said in a briefing for reporters last month. “It just does not.”
Republicans said the administration’s examples aren’t chosen by accident.
“This is a political town, the legislative process is a political process,” Lucas said. “It’s almost beyond imagination” to think that White House decisions on managing the sequester aren’t politically motivated, he said.
Hoagland said in the end both sides may be proved right: Even if the administration has some flexibility to manage the cuts, the reductions will hurt anyway.
“The administration hyped it up a little more than they should have,” he said. “It’s not going to be the worst thing. But there are going to be inconveniences, and those inconveniences will grow over time.”