When the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget was called before the House Armed Services Committee to talk about sequestration Wednesday morning, he didn’t mince words in blaming Republicans for the looming budget cliff.
“The root cause of the problem today is the refusal of Republicans to acknowledge that the top two percent of Americans have to pay their fair share,” an exasperated Jeffrey Zients said, after committee members pressed him to discuss the fiscal implications of sequestration and how it might be avoided.
There are now five months before the sequestration mechanism prescribed under last year’s Budget Control Act would take effect, lopping $1 trillion in spending evenly from the Defense Department and other programs. Intended as an ultimatum way to force Congress to reach compromise on spending reductions, the BCA has instead bred stalemate: President Barack Obama has promised to veto any sequestration alternative that does not raise taxes, and conservative solutions have received only party line support.
While missives from OMB have previously urged Congress to do its job to avert the sequester, Zients’ attack on Republicans Wednesday stunned some members of the committee.
“We’re not usually in the habit of hearing such partisan statements in such a bipartisan committee,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said coldly, pointing out that Obama’s budget, the only solution he has proffered to avoid the sequester, has not received a single vote in the House or Senate.
“You keep saying Congress should act, Congress should act, and you are absolutely right,” Turner said. “But the Constitution says we cannot do it alone.”
Zients did deliver some valuable information regarding the effects of sequestration to the committee, saying that OMB had determined military personnel accounts would be exempt from the cuts, and had begun vetting the legislation to determine any other department exemptions. He also said the cuts would be implemented in an indiscriminate, across-the-board way–10 percent off the top for each of the Defense Department’s 2,500 department accounts, and about eight percent for domestic departments.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who also testified, added a grim perspective from the military. While veterans spending was also exempt from sequestration, Carter said military families and veterans would be affected as base support services and the Defense Health Program would be cut back. Because overseas funding was not exempt, he said Operations and Management funding, including military training, would be even more dramatically affected to keep resources flowing freely to the front lines.
“While we can foresee the harmful effects of sequestration, the nature of the sequestration mechanism makes it impossible to devise a plan that eliminates or successfully mitigates it,” Carter said.
Wednesday’s hearing ended in frustration, with no clear way forward to avoid a measure that both parties agreed was devastating. While Zients and some Democratic committee members insisted raising taxes was the only way to stave off the cuts, others maintained there were solutions that did not burden taxpayers.
“I understand the mantra that you have to pound away,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), “ … but there are some of us who feel just as strongly that we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”