WASHINGTON – Longer waits at the U.S.-Canadian border, larger class sizes in Buffalo city schools and big reductions in programs for the poor are looming, thanks to a series of automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect Friday, Obama administration and local officials warned Monday as Republicans resisted efforts to replace the cuts with other savings and tax increases.
With the White House and congressional leaders not even really negotiating about an alternative to the $85 billion in cuts set to take effect for the next seven months, lawmakers said they expected the cuts to take effect as scheduled – and the White House made it clear that the public would notice.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined a dire scenario of border backups, while White House aides announced that New York State will lose $79 million in federal school aid this year alone, with Buffalo city schools losing out on $2.54 million.
President Obama issued a blunt warning to governors gathered at the White House, saying: “Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do.”
Republicans countered that the White House was deliberately making the cuts as painful as possible for political reasons.
“There can be savings made at every turn; just take the budget line by line by line like I did in Erie County,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, a former Erie County executive. “You can absorb this $85 billion, and the public would never feel it at all. Again, this president is going to punish the public as a way of placing blame so he can try to get more taxes.”
Obama is demanding more taxes on the wealthy as part of a package that would replace the spending cuts known as “sequestration,” which would total $1.2 trillion over a decade.
Passed by Congress at Obama’s suggestion as part of the 2011 deal to raise the government debt ceiling, the sequestration cuts were designed to be too painful to ever take effect. But now, with the president and Congress again at a stalemate on replacing the cuts, administration officials spent the day Monday outlining how bad they would be.
Given that the first year of the 10-year cuts are being compressed into seven months, administration officials said most domestic programs except Social Security and Medicare would be cut 9 percent in one fell swoop starting Friday, while defense would be slashed 13 percent.
Napolitano said that would mean dramatic cutbacks in border security, forecasting long lines at the nation’s border crossings and airports as her department is forced to cut back the hours of border patrol and customs agents.
“One of the chief complaints I receive whenever I travel to either border is it takes too long to move the trucks across, it takes too long for people in passenger vehicles to get through, and all I can tell you is that, with sequestration, that situation is not going to improve,” she said. “It’s going to go backwards.”
Napolitano’s White House briefing appeared to be part of a wide-ranging administration effort to paint an ugly picture of sequestration’s impact. As part of it, the White House released summaries of how each state would be affected.
The New York summary showed education taking an especially big cut, as the federal government reduces the aid it gives states for educating the disadvantaged and the disabled.
Big-city school districts will suffer the most, with Buffalo city schools likely to lose $2.54 million, according to an analysis by the New York State School Boards Association.
The Buffalo Board of Education recently passed a resolution calling on Congress to redraw the cuts, saying they “could result in large class sizes, fewer course offerings, compromised school safety, loss of extracurricular activities and teacher and staff layoffs.”
But the cuts wouldn’t end there. According to the White House analysis, the cuts would mean that in New York:
• Head Start and Early Head Start would be ended for about 4,300 children.
• About 4,520 low-income college students would lose their federal aid, and 4,150 fewer students would be able to get work-study jobs.
• The defense payroll would be trimmed by more than $60 million through furloughs while military bases in the state would lose $108 million in funding.
And that’s just the start of it. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, warned that $1.6 billion in cuts at the National Institutes of Health would have an impact on research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, while practically every local government agency that receives federal funds would also take a hit.
“The resulting job losses in education, the life sciences, law enforcement, border security and so on threaten to throw our economy backwards,” Higgins said.
In the face of all of that, Democrats are backing Obama’s preferred solution.
“We propose that companies that send jobs overseas no longer get a tax break to do it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “We propose that oil companies, which get huge subsidies and are making multi-billions of dollars, no longer get those subsidies. And we propose that those whose income is over a million dollars a year pay the same rate as their secretaries. If we do those three things, we don’t have to do sequester.”
Collins dismissed Schumer’s proposal as “typical liberal spend-spend-spend, tax-tax-tax” and added: “Frankly, Sen. Schumer, when it comes to economic policy and small business, doesn’t know what it’s like to run a small business and create the jobs we needed.”
Collins was by no means the only Republican who expressed skepticism about the administration’s worrisome warnings about the looming spending cuts.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget noting that while proposing cutbacks on border security, the federal government is also looking to hire an Air Force historian and 10 drivers at the State Department among other apparently non-essential personnel.
“Are any of these positions more important than an air traffic controller, a border patrol officer, a food inspector, a TSA screener, or a civilian supporting our men and women in combat in Afghanistan?” Coburn asked.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, accused the administration of engaging in political theater “to try to scare as many people as possible to say we can’t do this.”
Still, Reed acknowledged that a better budget-balancing plan would address long-term fiscal challenges such as Medicare and Social Security, rather than focusing all the cuts on other programs.
Such a better balanced plan may still be in the offing, he said.
“I see us going past the March 1 date, I see pressure developing on the various lines that are going to be impacted, and that will force folks down in Washington on both sides of the aisle to come together to try to come up with an alternative package,” Reed said.