The Sequestration Knife Cuts Deep

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By Paula Dwyer

The Obama administration left no doubt today that it views the $109 billion federal spending cuts it must make in January with great disdain. Its 394-page sequestration report, delivered to Congress less than two months before the election, says the 10-year, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts required under last year's deficit-reduction law will have a "devastating impact" on everything from education to research.

The $109 billion must be split between defense and domestic discretionary programs. The act protects Medicare by limiting its cuts to 2 percent, or $11 billion. That means other domestic programs must take about an 8 percent chop.

The White House budget office says the result will be fewer food-safety inspections and air-traffic controllers, smaller classrooms and less biomedical research. It also means the Pentagon must delay fixing worn-out equipment and juggle its accounts to keep up war-readiness capabilities.

The administration says Republicans are putting national security at risk in order to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans respond by saying it was President Barack Obama who insisted on including the Pentagon.

In shielding Medicare, the domestic cuts had to be deeper. The federal courts will lose $384 million. Nutrition programs for women, infants and children will be trimmed by $543 million. Low-income households will get $285 million less in heating assistance this winter. The National Institutes of Health loses $2.5 billion. Customs and Border Patrol must yield $712 million. The National Parks System gets a $183 million whack. Even U.S. embassy security and construction takes a $129 million hit. Bad timing, that.

The automatic across-the-board cuts would come each year through 2021. They are a punitive step lawmakers imposed upon themselves after failing to negotiate a deal to cut the deficit.

The spending chops are distasteful enough that voters may complain, possibly leading Congress to find a way around the sequestration in the lame-duck session after Nov. 6.  A grand bargain on the fiscal cliff that supplants the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade is possible. My money is on a simple postponement until the new Congress is sworn in.

(Paula Dwyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

-0- Sep/14/2012 20:45 GMT