Putting a Human Face on Budget Sequestration

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October 1, 2012; Source: Huffington Post

The NPQ Newswire has wondered (see here and here) why the nonprofit sector has been so sluggish in educating Congress about the impacts of the pending budget sequestration. Sequestration would amount to serious trouble for the nonprofit sector as it now stands, but Republicans plus a jingoistic plinth of Democrats are trying to reduce the sequestration impact on the Pentagon, which is currently slated to absorb half of the cuts, a move which would shift an even greater burden to domestic programs. The sequestration problem is real, it would hurt domestic programs, and we don’t see a Congressional Hail Mary pass about to cure the problem, so what is it that is making the nonprofit sector so passive about sequestration?

Focusing on the lackluster public response to sequestration, Tim Delaney’s op-ed in the Huffington Post suggests a bead on the problem: language. The president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, Delaney has taken to reframing the debate from a notion of the “fiscal cliff” represented by sequestration to a “human cliff.” He is telling nonprofits—and the public—that sequestration will cause “agony,” as the budget cuts cause “the jobs and various services on which [people] rely disappear beneath them…because Washington politicians didn’t do their jobs.”

Like we did, Delaney points to an Office of Management and Budget report to highlight specific cuts. These cuts will remove funding for smaller classrooms, afterschool programs, food inspections, air and water environmental protection programs, and research into cancer and childhood diseases. He draws on a National Conference of State Legislatures report to note the prospect of cuts to Head Start, financial aid for college, rental assistance programs, disaster relief, and community development and community services block grants. He notes the Pew Center for States’ estimate of cuts in special education, child care and development, and the Women Infants and Children food and nutrition program.

Importantly, he notes that the fiscal year for the sequestration cuts starts now. So the sequestration’s impact will essentially be backdated to October 1st or, alternately, a fully funded start of the year will end with some incredibly raggedly funded months at the end.

Delaney is trying—trying—to put a human face on sequestration, to tell a story of the impending cuts impacting people, not simply lines in a federal budget spreadsheet. He recommends that nonprofits do three things: write letters to the editor of local newspapers explaining the human impact of sequestration; without getting electorally partisan, focus on Congress (and on state and local government races, rather than the presidential contest) and ask, “Who will work seriously to solve problems rather than be another partisan obstructionist or apologist on either side of the aisle?” and demand answers to what they will do about sequestration (and more); and then “hold them accountable with our votes.”

Delaney is counting on the nonprofit sector being there, ready to enter the fray of the sequestration debate with vigor and power. We can only hope that he is right. So far, the nonprofit engagement in the sequestration debate hasn’t felt too powerful, to say the least. And if nonprofits don’t focus some of their attention on making sure that the Pentagon’s share of balancing the nation’s budget is proportionately hefty, the sector will have lost an important opportunity to help define the mission and priorities of the federal government.—Rick Cohen