Can Congress cope with sequester? Doomsday fears fade, as round 2 nears

Remember the dire warnings about deep cuts to departments, agencies and programs if Congress triggered the sequester?

They included hours-long wait times at the airport, compromised border security and the inability to pay military personnel.

In other scenarios, the chaos extended to the hungry and homeless. More than a half-million low-income women and children would lose federal food aid, according to one prediction. Another, more recent, out-of-this-world scenario came after the Air Force said it would no longer be able to scan the sky for extraterrestrial threats – all because Washington wouldn’t free up money.

In the nine months since sequestration kicked in, these end-of-days predictions ended up being far worse than the reality. Military members have been paid, wildfires in California have been fought and emergency authority was granted to move resources to offset the across-the-board cuts. In April, for instance, Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration the flexibility to move money around and end air traffic controller furloughs.

Even the highly publicized White House tours, canceled in the wake of the cuts, were eventually reopened on a limited basis.

As the year comes to a close, Congress remains divided on how to handle a new round of across-the-board cuts. Facing a Jan. 15 deadline to pass a new budget bill -- or risk another partial government shutdown -- lawmakers are bickering over what the spending levels should be in the new year.

But the warnings are not quite as shrill as they were in February.

Leaders in both parties are open to changing the sequester, yet many Republicans are willing to keep it in place, at least for the short-term, if no deal is reached. As the budget deadline approaches, a number of conservatives are pressing leadership to preserve the sequester and hold down discretionary spending to $967 billion -- which, for the federal government, is relatively low. And as much as Democrats loathe the sequester, the desire by both parties to avoid another partial shutdown might be stronger than the desire by one party to overhaul it.

Lawmakers are still trying to figure out how to cope with, and possibly tweak, the cuts.

Among the loudest critics of the sequester have been top brass at the Pentagon, who say the cuts are damaging national security and making it difficult to plan. A new GOP proposal by Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., is aimed at cushioning the blow at the Defense Department.

The bill would generate other savings in part by using a tweaked formula for inflation -- known as the chained Consumer Price Index -- to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for federal retirees and Social Security beneficiaries. The legislation also would increase over three years federal employees’ contributions toward their retirement accounts from 0.8 percent of their salaries to 2 percent. Additionally, Bridenstine and Lamborn would eliminate the Federal Employees Retirement System annuity supplement, which provides extra benefits to certain employees who retire before they are eligible to collect Social Security.

Blocking additional budget cuts to the Defense Department is a stance many Republicans are likely to take as Congress tries to crank out a spending bill.

While some departments have been able to weather the storm, others still say they won’t be able to keep up with the cuts.

A new report published by the Center for American Progress called “How Sequestration Gets Worse in 2014,” paints an even dimmer portrait of what’s to come.

The liberal-leaning think tank says sequester demonstrates “Washington dysfunction” and how government leaders “relinquished their responsibility to govern a blunt instrument.” It also says the sequestration effects of 2013 will be nowhere near the hardship that awaits in 2014 and says all areas will feel the heat.

“Sequestration will cut $24 billion more in 2014 than it did in 2013,” report author Harry Stein wrote. “That is because Congress partially repealed the 2013 sequester in the American Taxpayer Relief Act, which was passed to address the ‘fiscal cliff’ at the beginning on 2013.”

Stein says that in 2013, Congress shifted funds from nondefense to defense programs.

“That special treatment for defense does not continue in 2014 under the sequestration law, which means that defense will be funded at an even lower level next year,” he said. “While the nominal spending level for nondefense under sequestration hardly changes from 2013 to 2014 – because nondefense programs already took extra cuts in 2013 – both defense and nondefense programs will shrink as a share of the overall economy.”

The report also faults the government for approaching the cuts like a short-term goal and says its one-time fixes for sequestration, like the one at the FAA, have been used up.

“The most high-profile quick fix for sequestration was the Federal Aviation Administration, where air traffic controller furloughs were delaying travelers across the country,” Stein said. “To stop the furloughs, Congress cut investments in airport improvements to pay the salaries of the air traffic controllers. That makes sense for now, but airport infrastructure needs are piling up, and Congress will eventually have to pay the bill.”