Sequestration: little talk, little action

21 days until the sequester

Have you noticed that that vast majority of media coverage focuses on how sequestration would hurt the U.S. Department of Defense? That’s mostly because people like the outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have been speaking out about sequestration for a long time. However, other members of the president’s Cabinet have been under a gag order when it comes to the sequester. This is surprising because half of the budget cuts from sequestration will come from defense, and the other half will come from 13 of the other 14 departments. (The Department of Veterans Affairs has been exempted from sequestration.)

What’s the point of such a gag order? We can’t know for sure, however, it is the opinion of this blogger that the administration is using it as a tool to pressure Republicans, who are generally in favor of defense spending, to make a deal that undoes sequestration. Unfortunately, all it has done is convince House Republicans to pass a bill that puts all of the sequestration cuts on the nondefense side of the ledger, allowing them to state that they’ve passed legislation that solves sequestration. This plan, while it will never pass the Senate, would result in a 15 percent to 20 percent cut to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other research-funding agencies.

In the meantime, the stalemate over averting sequestration continues.  Earlier this week, President Obama floated an idea to postpone sequestration with a series of spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes. However, the Republican leadership quickly shot down the idea of delaying the sequester and reemphasized their desire to find areas of the budget to cut. That leaves sequestration negotiations in almost the exact same place as they were in early January. The only difference is that we’re significantly closer to the deadline for the enactment of sequestration as members of Congress continue to dig in to their positions.

While we are sure to hear more about averting sequestration as we get closer to March 1, it is not clear if it will be empty rhetoric or concrete plans. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter to keep up with all of the relevant news!

UPDATE: The White House just released a fact sheet about the effects of sequestration for the nondefense discretionary community including NIH, NSF and others. While they aren’t the hard and fast numbers about the impact of sequestration we need to make a firm argument, hopefully this attention will force the sequestration debate to be about the entirety of the cuts, and not just the defense side.

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