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Cruelest Month for Sequester-related Cuts?

April 5th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

by David Cay Johnson, Columbia Journalism Review

This article originally appeared at the Columbia Journalism Review 01 April 2013.

April Fool’s Day is an important date for reporting on the meat ax cuts to federal spending resulting from the 2011 sequestration deal that President Obama proposed in the belief no one would let it actually happen. The sequestration technically began March 1, but many federal employees are covered by agreements requiring 30 days’ notice before furloughs and layoffs, making April 1 a key date, as will be the days and weeks ahead.

You would not know that, however, from reading the news columns of three of the Big Five newspapers over the weekend. By my searching, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and USA Today offered no news coverage of sequestration-related furloughs going into effect (though the LA Times did run this online map Monday showing federal contracts and salaries as a percent of each state’s economy, giving a vague sense of how the budget cuts would be apportioned).

Follow up:

The Washington Post, for its part, gave prominent page-one treatment Monday to how meat inspection was spared from cuts in an informing piece by David A. Farenthold and Lisa Rein that made a powerful point about politics, if not sound policy. Wrote Farenthold and Rein:

There’s a story there, about how power and lobbying can still make money appear in Washington, even in this age of austerity. It started with sharp political theater. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted that the sequester would force him to shut down all U.S. meat production on at least 11 days.

The inspectors union didn’t believe that. Neither did many in the powerful meat lobby. But they were too worried not to help Vilsack anyway. After an extensive campaign, the Senate gave Vilsack the money.

So the sequester can be hacked. Now, other interest groups are waiting: police officers, airport executives, Border Patrol agents. The question is: Can it be hacked again?

Government Executive Magazine provided one answer to that question on Friday. Eric Katz reported that the border agents union was told that “its members would not face furloughs, but the details are still being negotiated and nothing is final” because of “a stopgap spending bill President Obama signed into law Tuesday. The continuing resolution kept the across-the-board cuts in place, but provided extra funding to the Homeland Security Department — CBP’s parent agency — to ease the impact on border security.

As for The Wall Street Journal, it ran a piece on A5 Monday about the effects of budget cuts in Baltimore, one of the poorest and most troubled cities in America. Reporter Elizabeth Williamson, in Monday morning’s print edition, began with this lede:

The sequester, the series of federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1, remains for many in this city a theoretical concept.

But just a few lines later, Williamson reported that the cuts were very real indeed. The Y of Central Maryland’s Head Start, a federally funded program to help poor children get a shot at success in grammar school, had its funding cut $250,000 or 5 percent, according to John Hoey, the agency’s president. The Y, Williamson wrote:

has cut unfilled positions and is thinking about asking teachers to help serve lunch or double as bus attendants. In the past, Baltimore County’s wealthy residents have donated funds to help fill gaps in federal funding, and he hopes that will happen again. “The sky won’t fall,” Mr. Hoey said.

Imagine if Senators and Representatives had to make their own photocopies or just personally sign all the letters they mail using their franking privilege? More work for the same pay is not a “theoretical” concept. Nor is reliance on donations rather than funding for vulnerable children.

Then there is the effect on the FBI, per Williamson:

the Baltimore FBI office’s staff of 400—who cover Maryland and Delaware — remain on the job but somewhat in the dark about coming furloughs. “As far as I know, it’s every employee [and] one day off per pay period,” said FBI spokesman Richard Wolf of furloughs expected in May. “And when I say we’ve been told that, I don’t know if I’ve officially been told that.”

Telling readers that FBI agents and staff will take off one day per period would be meaningful if they knew that the period is two weeks, meaning a 10 percent reduction. That’s the equivalent of laying off 40 of those 400 FBI agents—far from a “theoretical” effect on criminal, terrorist and background investigations.

Contrast the Journal’s self-contradictory “theoretical” assessment to that of Tony Marrero in the Tampa Bay Times (née St. Petersburg Times). “Head Start staffers will forgo retirement money to maintain services,” read the headline on Marrero’s Saturday morning report.

After interviewing Heidi Rand, who runs the local Head Start, Marrero wrote:

Stopping retirement contributions will cover almost half of the shortfall.

Rand considered cutting full-time employees to 35 hours a week, with three of those hours lost by closing the program early on Fridays. But that would have hurt client families, Rand said, and Head Start staffers said they would rather lose retirement money than take-home pay.

“So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck, they see it as the lesser of two evils,” she said.

To help cover the rest of the deficit, Rand is eliminating staff training and reducing contracted cleaning service from three days a week to two. Employees will have to pick up the slack.

So Head Start workers, who typically earn less than median wage, will have less income in their old age—also not a “theoretical” cut and one that may add to taxpayer burdens when those Head Start staffers are too old to work.

The Big Five papers should be leading the way on this important, evolving story. Here’s hoping there’s some strong coverage in the works.

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