Sequestration Pain: Likely to Continue in FY 2014, 10 Weeks from Now

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July 22, 2013; MSNBC


Ten weeks! That’s how long we have until the next fiscal year starts, and movement toward staving off the second year of the sequester doesn’t look like it’s in the offing, at least on the domestic side of the spending equation.

On the military side, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel has picked up where Leon Panetta left off, describing the impact of prospective cuts on the military as “very damaging.” As we have noted before, military arguments against sequestration seem to resonate with Democrats and Republicans and continued this past week with comments from senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at the Senate Budget Committee bemoaning the ability of the military to absorb a $52 billion haircut next year. Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) sequestration op-ed in the Baltimore Sun almost totally focused on the impact on the military (including furloughs to the Pentagon’s civilian employees). The President’s own FY2014 budget proposal for the Department of Defense kept the Pentagon largely whole, requesting $526.6 billion, only a slight reduction from the FY2013 budget, though with the projected reduction and cessation of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a largely hold-harmless military budget is actually quite robust. The pain of close-cropping the Pentagon’s budgetary mullet doesn’t seem to be all that bad, especially when military spending is spread through other parts of the budget, not to mention the secret budgets of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. (The proposed FY2014 budget for the “National Intelligence Program,” which combines multiple agencies, was $52.2 billion, though there is no way to verify that other money is tucked away in the budget for the CIA and NSA as well.)

Writing for MSNBC, Timothy Noah makes an obvious point, but one that bears repeating given the concern of members of Congress with the impossible scenario of an underfunded Pentagon: “The sequester has been particularly devastating to programs that benefit the poor.” Noah notes domestic impacts from this past short year’s $42 billion (to increase to $89 billion next year), such as an $854 million cut in housing voucher funding, a roughly $400 million decrease in Head Start, and a doubling of planned cuts in federal public defenders from five percent to ten percent (to rise to 23 percent next year, with layoffs of half of all federal defender staff positions possible).


Something still isn’t happening with the message. Our efforts to reach out to activists for commentary brought in a number of desultory results.

  • One leader of a regional grantmaking association told us by email, “It seems to me that nonprofits must be in a world of hurt, but somehow their stories are not being told” in her region.
  • “I don’t have any nonprofit-specific stories, oddly enough,” a state nonprofit association communications director told us by email. “I’ve heard more about people in the military and federal jobs getting impacted. I’m wondering if the trickle down affect hasn’t impacted the organizations directly yet.”
  • A Midwest foundation executive emailed to say, “We have actually heard very little from grantees about the impact of sequestration, suggesting that the impact may not be fully hitting yet…For me, I think the bigger questions are, why isn’t more impact being felt yet and when is it likely to begin?”

What is making the domestic advocates so quiescent? Are they concerned that pushing for repeal of the domestic side of the sequester would run up against the positions of both parties (and the Obama White House) that are either against repeal per se or against protecting domestic discretionary human services/social safety net programs at the expense of the bloated military budget? Or is there something about the ability of nonprofits to hang together around messaging to protect the charitable tax deduction in contrast with their inability to coalesce around efforts to protect government funding? There’s only 10 weeks left to do something.—Rick Cohen