By: Darren Samuelsohn
It’s no accident that the fight over multibillion-dollar cuts to every government agency sounds a lot like cuts hitting one agency — the Pentagon.
The reason: It hasn’t been a fair fight.
Top officials at three domestic agencies say they were instructed by the White House not to talk about the looming sequester cuts unless their talking points were first cleared by the Office of Management and Budget.
The direction from the White House so infuriated Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski that she’s planning a hearing next Thursday to give domestic agencies a chance to make their case by inviting officials from OMB, Treasury, Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security.
“It’s been under a gag order,” the Maryland Democrat said of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet to POLITICO. “I’m against gag rules.”
A White House aide said the Cabinet has been central in the sequestration debate, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s testimony before a Senate panel last summer to an OMB report spelling out programs that would be hit by the across-the-board cuts.
But White House officials have also told the Cabinet that it was taking the lead in message operations on sequestration, according to three senior Obama administration officials. Yes, the agencies have a green light to talk about the spending cuts. But they must go through the OMB for coordination to avoid “causing mass confusion” for millions of federal employees.
“You don’t want to send mixed messages,” said one senior aide.
There’s also been a limit on what’s said from the Cabinet because of concern that the Obama officials could end up drawing more attacks from congressional Republicans who have shown they are determined to cut spending across the board, even at the once-sacrosanct Pentagon.
When administration officials have spoken about sequestration, the message has had a predictable rhythm, criticizing the cuts as “bad policy.” Agency heads say their departments will be able to function, but early plans for dealing with a decade of mandatory across-the-board spending cuts also would start with furloughs, hiring freezes and canceling travel and conferences.
The message from the nondefense Cabinet stands in stark contrast with the Pentagon, which has been out in force ever since the idea of the automatic cuts surfaced during Obama’s showdown with House Republicans in 2011.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has led the P.R. offensive, calling sequester cuts a “doomsday machine.” Military brass fanned out on the Hill to seek a reprieve. Defense industry bosses played up talk of layoffs.
It’s also been tough for the other agencies to compete with the flag-draped warnings of doom and gloom that Pentagon officials can offer, but it’s not just that. The Pentagon’s press machine has few equals in Washington, not to mention constituencies across the country that would feel the pain of budget cuts at local bases and defense factories.
So as the fight over cuts comes down to the wire — House Republicans rejected Obama’s latest idea for a short-term deal Tuesday — news is bad for both sides of the equation.
The defense budget is primed to take about half of all the cuts in the first year — or about $43 billion. The non-defense discretionary budget will include cuts of about $6.6 billion from Health and Human Services and nearly $3.7 billion each from Homeland Security, Education and Housing and Urban Development. The departments of State and Energy also face cuts of about $2.5 billion each.
Those are big reductions for any agency to absorb at once, especially when the losses get tacked onto a $1.2 trillion reduction already mandated by the Budget Control Act that Obama signed into law in 2011, said David Obey, the former Wisconsin Democratic congressman and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“These agencies are going to be told to carry out mission impossible,” Obey said. “How in God’s big Earth are you going to apply some of the sequestration cuts to public safety issues?”
The calls have been growing to get the agency chiefs more active in sequestration since the end-of-the-year fiscal cliff deal became law. Activists fret that the political terrain has shifted to favor House Republicans as they push for more spending cuts after making big concessions on taxes and deficit reduction. Absent a more concerted campaign from Obama’s top aides, advocates for saving the discretionary budget say they’ll keep on struggling to get their own members interested.
“If they don’t see Secretary Sebelius talking about it, they’re not taking it seriously either,” said Emily Holubowich, an advocate for health budgets and spokeswoman for a broad collection of about 3,000 groups trying to save the discretionary budget from sequestration.
Last month, Jon Carson, who was then the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, hosted Emily Holubowich and other advocates working to save funding for education, science, law enforcement, defense, housing, labor and conservation. At the meeting, the activists pled with Carson to get the Cabinet to start talking in public about the real-world implications of sequestration, like fewer cops on the beat and longer lines at airports.
“We need you to release the hounds,” Holubowich said was the group’s message. “Take the gag order off the agencies.”
Obama on Tuesday made his own case against sequestration, warning of the economic consequences if the cuts start March 1 and urging Congress to push back that deadline.
But so far, his Cabinet has remained relatively quiet, leaving the groups who defend the different parts of the federal budget asking themselves “WWDD” — or “What would Defense do?”
“I have no idea why we are not hearing from the agencies,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Even business does not want further delays waiting for permits needed for development.”
John Garder, a budget expert at the National Parks Conservation Association, said he’s been urging the Interior Department to “hand over the microphone” to park superintendents, rangers and scientists who can best explain what spending cuts would mean for park visitors ahead of summer, peak travel season.
“It’s time to let them speak,” he said.
Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, said the administration gets credit for Duncan’s testimony on sequestration before a Senate panel last summer.
“I can’t complain perhaps as much as others can,” he said, noting, though, that’s it’s not enough.
“We’d like to have Secretary Duncan be even more outspoken and do find it a little curious as to why all the Cabinet heads are not making concerted action to highlight sequestration,” he said.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told POLITICO last month that the cuts would deliver a “profound and devastating blow” for medical research. In an NPR interview in December, Attorney General Eric Holder said he had “flexibility to move funds within the department” to be able to maintain public safety, adding that he also could keep the federal prison system going “for months.” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson called the cuts “bad policy” during budget hearings before Congress last year. Likewise, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Des Moines Register in October that the cuts are “really bad policy.”
But the Defense Department has had the most running room to make its case against the cuts. POLITICO last month reported that Panetta called Senate Republicans on New Year’s Eve requesting they add a two-month delay for sequestration into the final fiscal cliff deal, and he’s been working on the phone since then to head off the cuts before they hit March 1.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined other military leaders in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month warning of 800,000 civilian employees who would be furloughed absent an agreement, plus grounded aircraft, ships stuck in port and cutbacks in training programs. “We are on the brink of creating a hollow force due to an unprecedented convergence of budget conditions and legislation that could require the department to retain more forces than requested while underfunding that force’s readiness,” the commanders said.
Spotlighting the Pentagon makes the most sense from a messaging standpoint for the administration, said Henry Cisneros, the former Clinton-era HUD secretary. “National defense usually gets the nation’s attention if we’re going to shortcut any security commitments,” he said in an interview.
But Cisneros added that he too would prefer that Obama get the rest of his team engaged on the spending debate, noting for example that the HUD-specific sequestration cuts could leave 250,000 people without housing vouchers and another 150,000 homeless people without assistance.
“My hope would be that the entirety of the damage is explained to the American people by every Cabinet officer,” he said.
Republicans also say it’s no surprise Panetta — a former CIA director, White House chief of staff and chairman of the House Budget Committee — has gotten the most room in Obama’s Cabinet for talking about sequestration. “He’s been around forever. He’s got a pretty long leash,” said one former House GOP member. Plus, if Obama lets the other Cabinet aides say too much, he risks a backlash among conservatives looking for signs of weakness.
Matt Schlapp, the former White House political director for President George W. Bush, said there’s some up sides for Obama in keeping a simple message even as he expects “the conversations around the Cabinet table are probably pretty raucous.”
“I don’t often give the Obama administration a lot of compliments,” Schlapp said. “But there does seem to be some discipline here where the agencies are being successfully held back in terms of advocating for their particular budgets.”