Special Interests Line Up For Sequester Carve Outs

(POLITICO 12 MAY 13) … Darren Samuelsohn

Sequestration was supposed to be a meat ax slashing large chunks of the federal budget, but Congress is poised to turn it into Swiss cheese.

The shortlist for the next round of possible sequester saves includes cancer patients, medical researchers, hungry seniors, poor people and pre-schoolers.

“I’m looking at doing rifle shots on a lot of things, on Head Start programs, on elderly feeding programs,” Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, told POLITICO.

There are already more than a dozen pieces of stand-alone legislation introduced to address agencies, programs and accounts hit by sequestration. Whether any one proposal has a shot at becoming law requires a confluence of events. It needs bipartisan support and at least some semblance of a spending offset to cover the costs. Headlines showing Americans across the country feeling pain helps too.

“I’ll do it any way I can get it done,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, explaining that he’s “going to look for every opportunity” to help tens of thousands of federal workers in his state facing furloughs and budget cuts. “If I can get NIH the money it needs to continue it’s funding, I’m going to do it.”

Harkin said his “rifle shots” would likely come up during the fiscal year 2014 appropriations process. Aides to several other members said last week that their bosses are also looking for appropriate vehicles on which to hitch their bills, singling out the Defense Department authorization measure as one prime candidate.

An early House floor candidate is a bill from Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) that makes sure sequestration is no longer applied to Medicare’s payments for expensive cancer drugs. An Ellmers spokesman noted the legislation has already won support of more than 65 co-sponsors, including conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

It should come as no surprise that the sequester debate has gotten to this point, with lawmakers scrambling to undo budget cuts they created by carving out special-interest exemptions. The recent fixes for the FAA and meat inspection programs were really only the beginning of what may become a summer-long string of attempted sequester do-overs.

But critics of the one-by-one fixes to sequestration warn that only the most visible programs with the most powerful lobbies will be the ones that win. When FAA furloughs caused more than 7,000 flight delays, for example, Congress acted with unbelievable speed to offset the money and reopen closed control towers. Obama called the fix a “Band-Aid” in his weekly radio address — but he signed the bill anyway.

Former President Bill Clinton said during last week’s Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s Fiscal Summit that he appreciated the FAA fix because it personally helped him avoid flight delays.

But he still said it was the wrong way to go because it meant cuts to another part of the agency’s budget. “It basically is a metaphor, a mini-metaphor for the choices made in the sequester,” Clinton said. “Within the budget of the FAA, we’re making it possible for all of us to fly with fewer delays and not investing in improving the infrastructure of regional airports. That’s basically the constant choice we keep making if we just kick the can down the road, we choose the present over the future.”

New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers are in a big bind as they face further votes on sequestration fixes. “I voted for the FAA bill, many of us did, but to start picking off one thing and letting the other cuts go just because they don’t have an obvious applause section is a big mistake,” she said.

“The body is going to have fix-it fatigue,” warned Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. “I do know there was grumbling on the floor that we’ll go along with the FAA, but we don’t need this pattern. Because then any federal agency can hold the taxpayers or Congress hostage by shutting down some high-vis[ibility], high-sensitive department and then blackmail us into an adjustment.”

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he also was worried about the precedent that lawmakers are setting by undoing the budget cuts piece by piece. “If you fix one situation then there will be 10 more and then you basically don’t have a sequester,” he said.

But Roberts said that making these fixes is exactly what members of Congress signed up for, noting as a top priority legislation addressing the cancer drugs. “You can list about five at least and there’s probably more that we don’t know about,” he said. “It’s like picking the short straws.”

“I think it’s our obligation that when we find situations where the sequester is just egregious that we try to fix it and say look here are some other things that you can do,” Roberts said. “That seems to be on a case-by-case basis right now. Like everybody else, I wish we could fix the sequester but still achieve the spending cuts. Yes, I think Congress will respond.”

Here’s a sample of other sequester fixes also waiting in the wings: Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) would exempt the NIH; the New York delegation is trying to protect Sept. 11 health and compensation programs; Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) want to prevent furloughs for national guardsmen who work full time as uniformed civilians maintaining equipment; Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) hopes to save the TIGER transportation grant program; Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) have a bill to exempt the Indian Health Service; Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) would ensure that civilian Pentagon employees who get furloughed don’t lose access to classified information; Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) plan to release a new version of legislation this week that would give agency heads more flexibility in how they implement the budget cuts.

“Congress proved they can deal with one small corner of the pain caused by sequester,” Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said of the FAA bill. “We’re hopeful a broader plan will have the same appeal.”

Cardin said he’s not worried about setting more precedent by passing one-off fixes, noting that when sequestration was written it walled off a number of federal programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Social Security. Even Obama’s salary isn’t getting cut, though the president has agreed to give five percent of his pay back to the Treasury.

“It’s how this thing was designed. It didn’t apply to everything. There were exceptions from day one,” Cardin said.

If the meat inspectors and FAA furloughs are any indication, House and Senate leadership have shown little desire to stop their rank-and-file members from pushing specific sequester fixes.

“I think we’re going to have to look at that on a case-by-case basis,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “There’s not a litmus test or a list. Some people have some good bills and some good options and we’ll kind of take it as we go.”

House Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford (R-Okla.) said more temporary fixes to the sequester are “going to depend issue to issue on where things stand.”

“It’s the nature of where we are right now,” the Oklahoma lawmaker told POLITICO. “I tell people at home that if they feel like in the next year we’re going to fix the budget problems, they’ve underestimated how bad the budget is. So this is the reality I think for a decade or so that we’re going to have constant budget votes and spending votes because we’re $1 trillion over spending every year.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid conceded last month to let the air traffic tower fix move after unsuccessfully first pushing for a broader replacement to sequestration that pulled from contingency accounts funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A spokeswoman for the Nevada Democrat said he still wants a complete overhaul, but others in his conference said they’ve got a green light to pitch solutions for their causes.

“He’s talked to us about it,” Harkin said. “This is what he’d like to do.”

Back to Top