WASHINGTON—Faced with budget cuts in 1969, the director of the National Park Service shut down the Washington Monument for two days a week. “It was unheard of,” George Hartzog said in a 2005 interview with Parks & Recreation Magazine. “Even my own staff thought I was crazy.”
The ploy worked. Public uproar over the closing led Congress to restore the funding. So many government bureaucrats copied the strategy of fighting cuts by disrupting the most popular parts of their bureaucracy that the practice became known as the Washington Monument Syndrome.
The Obama administration took the strategy to new heights in its frantic effort to halt $85 billion in automatic spending cuts called sequestration. President Obama traveled more than 5,000 miles on a campaign tour to predict gloom and doom and devastation. Cabinet secretary after Cabinet secretary doled out gruesome details of the most catastrophic scenarios, from shuttered air traffic control towers to, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “teachers now who are getting pink slips.”
The Office of Management and Budget’s thick report on the impacted agencies included one, the National Drug Intelligence Center, that no longer exists. Even though it closed last June, it is still slated to lose $2 million to sequestration.
When the Obama administration finished weaving its lamentations of disaster to the nation, the Washington Monument was about the only thing spared. And that’s because it’s closed indefinitely due to the 2011 earthquake. Well, another item was spared: The Obama administration insisted that Obamacare would be implemented on time.
But after the mother of all Washington Monument Syndrome performances, the most frightening outcome possible for the Obama administration happened: The public did not panic and lawmakers cut spending. That bears repeating: The federal government cut spending.
Washington’s fear mongering did not generate widespread sympathy in America, from New York to New Mexico, because most workers had to cut their own budgets after the Jan. 1 expiration of the payroll tax cuts.
In New York, Mayor Bloomberg brushed off the hype: “We’re going to take all the prisoners from jail and put them on the street. Spare me. I live in that world. I mean, come on, let’s get serious here.”
In Rep. Tim Huelskamp’s sprawling district of 69 counties throughout western and central Kansas, a grand total of three calls concerned about sequestration came into Huelskamp’s congressional office two days before the cut’s March 1 deadline. “I think most Americans are going to wake up and yawn,” Huelskamp said.
In Rep. Raul Labrador’s Idaho district, an educator called the congressman after listening to the White House’s warning that the state would lose 50 teachers after the sequester. According to Labrador, the educator was not fazed because he knew that the education system is operating under 2012 budget allotments. Any losses would occur in the next school year, giving officials time to plan for the cuts through attrition and budgeting.
“There is no possible way that we are going to lose any teachers right now,” Labrador said.
An official in West Virginia agreed. When pressed for specifics about his pink slip comment, Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, could only name one school district in Kanawha County, W.Va. That school system’s superintendent, Ron Duerring, soon told the media that no teachers had lost their jobs.
Across the country in New Mexico, during a telephone town hall conference call, nearly 60 percent of 7,000 participating constituents told Rep. Steve Pearce that the cuts should go through. “The idea that we can’t make cuts without hurting the nation is preposterous,” said Pearce, whose staff has counted, for instance, 123 different agencies dealing with childhood nutrition.
Facing little pressure from constituents, Republicans in Congress sat on the already locked-in spending cuts. That was a dramatic change from previous fiscal fights that featured last-minute, late-night deals that usually included kicking the can down the road. In the vote to avert the fiscal cliff, senators ushered in the New Year by voting just after 2 a.m. This time Congress adjourned hours before the sequestration deadline hit.
Then, despite Obama’s melodrama, the Dow Jones Industrial average hit a new 52-week high on March 1. It hit an all-time high on March 5.
Fiscal conservatives heralded sequestration as an encouraging victory, but it represents just a small step toward fiscal sanity.
The cuts amount to 2.4 percent of an annual federal budget that has ballooned to $3.6 trillion. The $85 billion seems even more minuscule compared to a national debt that stands at $16.61 trillion. And, in accounting magic that can only occur in Washington, the $85 billion in cuts ordered to occur before this fiscal year ends will amount to about $44 billion in real spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The remaining cuts will be spread out to future years.
The cuts, moreover, are to the growth of government, not to real spending. The federal government’s budget will be larger this year compared to last year. Federal spending is predicted to grow by 67 percent over the next decade even with sequestration (without sequestration it would grow 69 percent to $6 trillion by 2023). The reason: Sequestration leaves untouched the real drivers of spending—entitlements.
Even with the cuts, the government will have $60 billion more in discretionary money to play with than it did in 2008, the year before Obama took office. The education program Head Start is just one of the many programs that has exploded under Obama, going from a budget of $6.87 billion in 2008 to $7.97 billion in 2012. The program faces $422 million in sequester cuts, giving the program a budget of $7.55 billion. That’s above Head Start’s 2008 budget.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., insists, “There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel.” Coburn sent a Feb. 26 letter to the White House highlighting more than 1,362 duplicative programs identified by the Government Accountability Office that costs taxpayers at least $364.5 billion annually. They include 80 economic development programs at four agencies, 160 housing programs, and 250 programs at the Department of Justice that offer similar grants.
Last year, when the Department of Homeland Security discovered $8.3 billion in unspent grant funds, it issued new guidelines to expedite the process “in light of the current economic situation.” In other words, department officials wanted to spend it so they wouldn’t lose it in future budgets. The department says that $5.25 billion of those funds remain unspent. But that is not something Janet Napolitano, the DHS secretary, brought up when she decried the $2.6 billion in cuts facing the department through sequestration.
And no one in the government has targeted the roughly 77,000 unused, underused, and sometimes dilapidated federal buildings that the Congressional Research Service reported last year as costing $1.67 billion a year to maintain.
Coburn also wrote to the Pentagon to target such programs as: the Board of Geographic Names, the Grill It Safe video series that highlights “grill sergeants” showing off their own recipes, the $1 million program planning to send a spaceship to another solar system, and the $5.2 million used on a project to determine what lessons about democracy could be learned from fish.
Armed with these examples of federal waste, Senate Republicans introduced a bill to give the White House more flexibility in managing the $85 billion in cuts. It failed, with Obama threatening to veto the bill.
The fiscal battle now moves to the next deadline: The government’s current funding levels run out on March 27. But a longer fight will occur over the future of the sequester: A decade’s worth of cuts totaling $960 billion are left.
Republicans are banking that the current cuts will show that shrinking the government won’t hinder private growth, while Democrats are hoping that removing a slice of money from the federal coffers will lead to a calamity that allows government to come to the rescue. Whether the public screams or yawns will go a long way to determining the outcome of the 2014 elections. Obama will look to those elections to cement his legacy by taking over the House while Republicans will look to stop him by controlling the Senate.
Until then, if the economy remains sluggish, Obama has already begun to use sequestration as an excuse in the same way he used former President George W. Bush as the fall guy during the last four years.
“Every time we get a piece of economic news, we’ll know that news could have been better if not for Congress’ failure to act,” Obama said March 1 after blaming Republicans for the cuts that he called “dumb” and “arbitrary.”
Sensing that the public had not fallen into hysteria over the cuts, Obama did concede that not everyone will feel the pain right away. But he could not resist one more attempt with the Washington Monument Syndrome. He warned that the “folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol” will make less money due to the cuts. “The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that,” he said.
Soon after Obama spoke, Carlos Elias, the superintendent of the U.S. Capitol building, emailed his employees: “The pay and benefits of EACH of our employees WILL NOT be impacted … I request that you please notify all of our employees about the importance of ignoring media reports.”
Meanwhile, the “deeply destructive” cuts in the 70-page report the White House attached to the sequestration order included: $3 million less for Pacific salmon recovery in the Pacific; $1 million less for the Defense Department’s support for international sporting competitions; and $1 million cut from the Interior Department’s helium fund.
Most conservatives agree that across-the-board cuts are a crude way to budget, and no one is arguing that squeezing into the last seven months of the fiscal year cuts totaling 9 percent of nonmilitary programs and 13 percent of defense programs will go unfelt by everyone.
With the defense budget bearing an unequal burden, states with a large military footprint will see challenges. About 800,000 Defense Department civilian employees are facing unpaid leave days that could cut their pay by 20 percent for the remainder of the year.
Sequestration’s ax will fall hardest in the area surrounding the nation’s capital. But the hub of federal government that includes Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland will get little sympathy from the rest of the country.
The region has enjoyed a government-fueled boom in the midst of the recession. It has escaped the large drop in employment felt by the nation. (In January, the unemployment rate for government workers stood at 4.2 percent compared to 8.6 percent for the private sector.) And of the nation’s 15 counties with the highest percentages of households in the top-tier income bracket (incomes $191,469 and higher), seven are in the greater Washington area. Five of those seven are in the top 10. —E.L.P.