Elections 2012: Obama Says Massive January Budget Cuts ‘Will Not Happen’

Mark Trahant
10/23/12

President Barack Obama made an important promise during Monday night’s debate. He said flat out: The massive budget cuts called sequestration will not happen.

Obama was responding to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s assertion that sequestration was the president’s proposal and it would cripple defense.

“First of all,” the president said, “the sequester is not something I proposed, it's something that Congress proposed. It will not happen.”

How it will not happen is the question of the day. And an answer needs to be found soon because the budget cuts are set to begin on January 2 under the Budget Control Act. Obama must change the law, finding agreement among Republicans (who are keen on finding more money for Defense) and Democrats (who are just as keen to protect domestic programs).

And the timing is touchy. Obama will be negotiating with Congress as either the just re-elected or as a defeated incumbent. Either way the politics of reaching a compromise and rewriting the law is, well, nearly impossible in a closely divided country.

What makes the task even more daunting is that the fight will not be in isolation. Or, perhaps, that’s the president’s best tool. The Bush tax cuts are also set to expire and Congress is just as divided over that issue as it is sequestration. The so-called fiscal cliff. So in theory the president could give a little on tax cuts, possibly extending them as he did once before, in exchange for some leeway on budget cuts.

The idea of sequestration was first proposed as an unacceptable alternative. It was supposed to be so bad, so ugly, that the very idea would force a deal by the so-called Super Committee because no one in Congress would want automatic budget cuts.

In normal times that might work – but this Congress was so divided that even with the threat of massive budget cuts, a compromise could not be reached.

But does Obama’s statement last night alter the situation?

On Politico, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was dismissive. “I was astonished, I almost fell out of my chair when the president said, ‘Don't worry, sequestration won't happen.’ We've been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own secretary of defense said would be a devastating blow to our national security. He just said, 'Don't worry, sequestration won't happen.' He's not a dictator yet.”

McCain’s words reflect the divide. Republicans want the President to sit down and prevent defense cuts. But they do not want that same process on domestic spending.

The Defense industry is taking that message to battleground states. “Since the beginning of the year stop sequestration rallies have been held in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia,” according to an aerospace lobbying group. “These events, which have drawn widespread attention, are helping AIA’s Second to None campaign hammer home the message that the 2.14 million workers whose jobs are at stake need Congress and the White House to develop an alternative to sequestration now.”

The National Congress of American Indians, meeting in Sacramento, was considering the impact of the fiscal cliff and sequestration on tribal governments. In a policy paper, NCAI said, “As the nation faces critical choices about how to address the deficit while preventing another recession, tribal leaders urge decision-makers to sustain funding in ways that honor our trust, support our people, and strengthen America.”

NCAI said the budget cuts that will impact Indian country include:

  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Tribes, cut by 35 percent;
  • Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants, Tribes, cut by 25 percent;
  • Indian Housing Block Grant cut by 21 percent;
  • Indian Student Education cut by 13 percent;
  • Tribal Community Oriented Policing Grants cut by 25 percent;
  • Total, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Operation of Indian Programs cut by 14 percent;
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs, Trust Natural Resources cut by 24 percent;
  • Special Education—Grants to States, Indian Set-Aside, cut by 14 percent.

And, Indian health programs would be hit with an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut, except for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians which would face a 2 percent cut.

The White House in its preview of sequestration, said that the automatic budget cuts would “undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that benefit the middle-class, seniors, and children. Education grants to states and local school districts supporting smaller classes, afterschool programs, and children with disabilities would suffer.

The number of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, and federal prosecutors would be slashed. The Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to oversee and manage the Nation’s airspace and air traffic control would be reduced. The Department of Agriculture’s efforts to inspect food-processing plants and prevent food-borne illnesses would be curtailed. The Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe would be degraded. The National Institutes of Health would have to halt or curtail scientific research, including needed research into cancer and childhood diseases. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to respond to incidents of terrorism and other catastrophic events would be undermined.”

The White House says there is still time to resolve this massive restructuring of government by automatic pilot. But it requires action by Congress in the days and weeks following the election. When both sides, winners and losers, are still sore from the results.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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