Defense & National Security

Why Obama isn’t talking about deep domestic cuts

Why Obama isn't talking about deep domestic cuts

On an ordinary weekday in November, a group of visitors to the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suddenly stripped off all their clothes and began chanting. Amid the flurry of press attention and the indecency arrests that followed, it emerged that the protesters were petitioning Boehner not to agree to impending cuts to funding for AIDS drugs and health research.

Arguably, the naked demonstration should have taken place at the White House instead of the Capitol. The AIDS cuts in question, it turns out, are yet another element of the sequester mechanism that will slash $1.2 trillion from domestic and defense spending over the next decade without strategy or planning.

And, as reported in Bob Woodward’s book “The Price of Politics” earlier this year, President Barack Obama and his staff single-handedly created the sequester as an “enforcement mechanism” for Congress to work out its budgetary differences. A majority of Republicans and Democrats passed the bill, and Obama signed it.

“This is a deal we can probably live with,” he said, in Woodward’s retelling.

With the brunt of the cuts falling on defense program spending, Republicans have long felt the onus to make a deal to avoid the sequester at any cost.

A new Pew poll shows that a majority of Americans—53 percent—will blame the GOP if we go over the fiscal cliff. But the dirty secret of the sequester is that it would be devastating for Democrats too, and particularly Obama, since the plan leads clearly back to him.

In addition to AIDS funding (of which $500 million is at stake in the first year alone and some 9,400 individuals stand to lose access to free drugs), the sequester cuts would come down hard on public education, a beloved institution for Obama.

A new study by the American Association of School Administrators shows that schools in the poorest areas will lose the most in sequestration. Using adjusted FY 2010 dollars, the study finds that schools receiving Impact Aid funding—typically those near military bases, in low-income populations, or near Indian reservations—would be hit first and hardest.

“In these schools, the immediate cuts of sequestration would translate into deferred maintenance and technology purchases, elimination of staff, increased class size and reduced professional development,” the study finds.

Also at great risk for massive cutbacks, beginning in the 2013-14 school year, are states such as Mississippi and Arkansas, which get 20 percent of their funds from the federal government.

“The bad cuts are just made worse because they just ignore the discussion about program needs, program effectiveness, and return on investment,’ said Noelle Ellerson, the study’s author. “It’s just very bad policy. It’s a lack of policy.”

Ellerson said she believed some solution would be reached to avoid sequestration and cited a recent conversation with White House staff about the issue as proof of Obama’s involvement, but acknowledged the president has been publicly silent on sequestration during campaign debates and since his reelection.

Not a top talking point

“As much as it’s not a top talking point of (Obama’s), (sequestration and the fiscal cliff) are inextricably linked,” she said.

Elizabeth Rorick, Deputy Executive Director of Government Affairs and Communication for the National PTA, said the organization is equipping parents with sequestration toolkits and discussion guides for citizen lobbying to Congress.

Rorick said she couldn’t speculate on Obama’s silence regarding sequester cuts.

“I don’t know what (Obama’s) plans are to address the issue,” she said. “We remain optimistic that they continue to have robust conversations around this important issue.”

While Washington analysts tend to believe that some last-ditch solution to stave off sequestration will be found, recent developments should give even sanguine observers cause for concern. After months of saying they trusted lawmakers to find a solution around sequestration, top defense officials announced Dec. 5 that they are now beginning to work with the Office of Management and Budget to plan for the budget reductions.

And in a statement last week that demonstrates the White House feels no responsibility for sequestration, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told CNBC that the administration was “absolutely” prepared to go over the fiscal cliff before yielding to Obama on sequestration.

Jim Dyer, a Republican strategist with the Podesta Group, said he believed a deal would still emerge from Congress before the end of December, but marveled at the apparent nonchalance the administration had shown in its approach to sequestration.

“After the president signed that (sequestration) deal, the White House posture has been and continues to be that this is Congress’s problem,” Dyer said. “Well, I’ve got to tell you I might take issue with that. I think this is all our problem and it’s the president’s problem too.”

 

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