Economy & Budget

Sequestration so far
‘ain’t so bad’

Sequestration so far‘ain’t so bad’

This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.

MADISON – Federal sequestration, it seems, has turned out a lot like the closing rounds of the bout between Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang in the third installment of the “Rocky” movie franchise.

Lang, played by the inimitable but badly imitated Mr. T, is pummeling Rocky when the “Italian Stallion” does what he does best: takes punches.

You ain’t so bad. You ain’t so bad,” Rocky shouts at the ferocious Lang after every explosive punch.

So it goes for the ferocious sequestration, the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts born through Congress’ inability to get the federal fiscal house in order.

As the Washington Post observed in late June, “Sequestration did hit, on March 1 … But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.”

Case in point, the Department of Defense’s fearsome furloughs.

When sequestration was first announced, DOD was looking at some $50 billion in budget cuts and the possibility of issuing 22 furlough days to some 630,000 of the agency’s approximately 800,000 employees.

DOD’s share of this fiscal year’s budget cuts dropped to $37 billion, thanks to continuing resolutions, the fact that Defense is one of the few agencies with a fiscal budget in place, and easing by Congress and the president of a Budget Control Act that was supposed to be merciless with its ax.

In July, the number of DOD furlough days was halved to 11. As of Aug. 6, the number of furlough days was trimmed to six, meaning that, for most civilian employees, unpaid days off have come to an end.

That’s not to say sequestration hasn’t hurt. Just ask the 1,500 civilian employees atWisconsin’s Fort McCoy and the approximately 700 civilian staff members at theWisconsin National Guard who have lost more than a week’s worth of pay and face another round of wage-reducing measures on Oct. 1.

But, when pressed, Defense, like countless other federal agencies, found savings. That, ultimately, is the goal of sequestration, no matter how haphazard it may be: to trim  more than $1 trillion out of the federal government’s ballooning debt.

Congress, weak-kneed as it is about cutting defense spending, helped too.

“Since then, Congress has improved most of a large reprogramming that we requested to let us move money into our operating accounts,” a senior defense official said during a briefing last week.  “The services have identified some changes that let us reduce costs. And we’ve been aggressive about shifting funds into those service accounts that have the most problems.”

For instance, DOD found about $1 billion in savings that it shifted off of worker furloughs from reduced transport costs. The department found it will not have to move “a number of pieces of equipment in Afghanistan … in fiscal ’13,” the senior official said.

DOD saved another $9.6 billion in reprogramming requests, delaying contracts and reducing costs in about 200 programs. Money was shifted around to DOD’s operating accounts.

Training has been reduced for the Army, flying time trimmed for the Air Force and there have been fewer Navy ship deployments.

The Air Force, however, has resumed flying for most of its squadrons and the Army is increasing some organizational training, according to the senior official.

But the damage to readiness has been done, he said, and so DOD is asking for more money.

“Military readiness is degraded heading into 2014,” the senior defense official said. “We still need several months and substantial funding to recover. And yet, 2014 is a year that’s going to feature great uncertainty, as much as I can remember any time in working with the defense budget, and it may feature some additional austerity.”

That uncertainty is the real issue, according to Linda Fournier, Fort McCoy’s public affairs officer.

“If (Congress) could pass a budget, have the money divvied out to say, ‘Here’s your pot of money. Make it work.’ That would speak volumes to what we are able to do,” Fournier said. “It’s difficult when you don’t have that placed with all these things in front of you.”

The lack of a new budget is certainly something most federal agencies have faced for several years.

The biggest problem with sequestration, critics contend, is its sightless approach to budget cuts, and what many see as Congress’ insatiable hunger to spend.

Fournier said Congress forces DOD to purchase outdated weapons and defense equipment in the name of political expediency and refuses to deal with DOD-recommended base closures that would bring significant savings to taxpayers.

DOD spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea agreed that Base Realignment and Closure is the domain of Congress, which has not allowed the department to conduct its realignment plan.

“We have excess inventory in land and facilities,” Elzea said.

That overcapacity is costing billions upon billions of dollars each year to operate. Elzea said a colleague more familiar with BRAC issues was not available for comment on Monday; he was on furlough.

Fort McCoy, meanwhile, cut its maintenance and repair budget by some $6 million, Fournier said. The installation’s six days of furloughs will save about $1.8 million.

Fournier said budget cuts have created more inconveniences at the fort, from potentially longer security check times to shifts in responsibilities and staff vacancies going unfilled longer.

But federal agencies, like DOD, are discovering budget items to trim or cut out.

The Justice Department, according to the Washington Post, staved off furloughs by “cutting” $300 million in funds that already had legally expired, not to mention $45 million to house detainees who didn’t exist.

Those kinds of phantom-like expenditures are the kinds of things that make taxpayers see reason in dramatic across-the-board federal spending cuts. But on other occasions, pressed with budget-cutting deadlines, agencies find all sorts of savings they never thought possible.

Fournier compares federal agencies’ quest for savings to a family household budget.

“Say they have a car that’s 10 years old. They’d like to buy a new one, but instead of spending $25,000 to buy a new car, they decide to put $2,000 into fixing the old one,” she said.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com.

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