The Sequester: Beyond a Threatening Gesture

May 1, 2013

Be careful of what you ask for, for you just might get it. Of course, nobody really ASKED for the sequester. It was meant to be an option so dire that Congress, the White House and many others couldn’t imagine would actually go into effect. Some other solution would certainly be found because they knew how irresponsible the sequester was. But into effect it went. And may be for a long time.

And as the sequester kicked in earlier this year, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of course the squeakiest wheels got immediate attention. Congress quickly approved an exemption from the sequester for air traffic controllers, after the public complained of delayed flights and long lines at airports. It also will likely continue with its annual “doc fix” to avoid a freeze on Medicare physician payments.  Expect a huge din to follow for other exemptions or forms of amelioration.

Whatever the next ear-splitting squeaky wheel will be, the poor, the old and the young are those most likely to suffer because their voices are not loud enough and they lack the clout of large organized entities. And too few political ears are wiliing to hear their soft voices.

Meals on Wheels program cuts are harming seniors and lengthening waiting lists, but what are the chances Congress will do something to protect this crucial program?  Yet it is impossibly short-sighted to let frail people face nutritional declines, and eventually move into a nursing home at a much higher cost than providing a hot daily meal. The White House estimated the cuts would mean 4 million fewer meals for seniors this year, and the Meals on Wheels Association of America estimated the loss as great as 19 million meals nationwide. Either way that is a lot of meals not eaten.

Cuts will impact a wide array of programs meant to help seniors such as most Older Americans Act programs, housing and transportation for seniors (and low-income people of all ages), along with many other programs such as the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and others. Consider the SSBG; it provides about 98% of all federal money spent for elder abuse, particularly states’ adult protective services.

Older adults are hardly the only ones already feeling the sequester.  The Washington Post reported that one of the first effects of the sequester was the lay-offs of teachers and slashing of budgets for schools on Indian reservations and U.S. military installations, where schools can’t look to a local property tax base. The Navajo Times noted that in one New Mexico county, with one-third of its population in poverty, a local school district faces a $2 million “hit.” Its students come mostly from the Navajo reservation not subject to state property taxes and relying “heavily on federal funding to pay teachers and provide textbooks.”

In addition to the FY 2013 budget sequester, other cuts loom. The FY 2014 sequester of another $109 billion will kick in Oct. 1, unless Congress does something drastic in the interim. OMB estimated discretionary spending will be slashed by $91 billion in FY 2014, with an additional $18 billion coming out of mandatory programs. Medicare is to be cut by 2 percent, other domestic mandatory programs will be pared by 7.3 percent and defense-related mandatory programs will be sliced by 9.8 percent.

Appropriators say they want to return to “regular order” for the FY 2014 budget process. But once again it looks more like dis-order. All that regular order seems to have been discarded in recent years in the face of partisanship, resulting in a breakdown in the appropriations process (that has required a series of continuing resolutions that makes it difficult for federal agencies to plan their spending, much less the state and local programs they fund). The House and Senate are not showing signs of compromising on their respective budget blueprints, which will need to hold total allocations to $966 billion in 2014, compared to $1.043 trillion in 2013.

Virtually all major aging (and human services) organizations agree that Congress must pass legislation to replace the entire sequester with a balanced approach to deficit reduction combining spending cuts, new revenue and reduction in the growth of future spending.  Each time a special interest or constituency, like those who fly, get a pardon from the sequester axe, their voices and resources are less likely to be there for the broader common good, especially for those Hubert Humphrey spoke so elegantly about.  Everyone who gives a tinker’s damn about the poor, vulnerable and otherwise marginalized, including seniors, needs to grab ahold of their elected officials and hold their feet to the fire until the sequester is replaced. And that is what we are asking for!