Education secretary Arne Duncan today joined the chorus of Obama-administration officials threatening catastrophic consequences if sequestration goes in to effect on March 1. “The only choice I can make would be to hurt fewer poor children and help more special-needs kids, or do the opposite,” he told reporters at the White House.
There are several problems with Duncan’s comments, which are characteristic of the administration’s cynical messaging on sequestration. Firstly, his insistence that some school districts were already issuing layoff notices to teachers was factually incorrect. The only school district he specifically cited — Kanawha County, W.Va. — had merely issued “transfer notices” unrelated to sequestration.
Secondly, as Politico noted earlier this week, the specific federal programs he mentioned — those that provide aid to poor students and students with special needs — are forward-funded, meaning that any cuts would not take effect until the 2013–2014 school year.
Duncan acknowledged as much in his prepared remarks at a February 14 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee. However, he went on to say that school districts will almost immediately “have to plan on less funding” in order to prepare for those future cuts, which may or may not happen depending on whether Congress agrees to alter the sequester in the coming weeks.
Although it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that government agencies should be planning ahead for the sequester’s spending reductions, the Obama administration has consistently rejected the notion.
Despite the fact that sequestration has been on track to take effect since November 2011, the administration has repeatedly advised government agencies and contractors not to take precautionary measures that might have eased the strain on their budgets.
In July 31, 2012, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a memo to federal agencies advising them to “continue normal spending and operations” because “the President remains confident that Congress will act” to avoid sequestration.
OMB director Jeffrey Zients argued that telling agencies to prepare for sequestration could be almost as tumultuous as sequestration itself. “Instructing the government to prepare for significant sequestration-induced disruptions — including potentially widespread furloughs or even reductions in force — could inadvertently trigger some of the negative effects of sequestration even if sequestration never happens,” he told members of the House Armed Services Committee on August 1, 2012.
In the late summer of 2012, the Department of Labor (DOL) also instructed government contractors to delay issuing more than 10,000 layoff notices in anticipation of sequestration, advice that some considered legally dubious. Contractors were simply trying to comply with federal law (the WARN Act) mandating that companies give employees at least 60 days notice of mass layoffs that are foreseeable.
The DOL insisted that the WARN Act did not apply in this case. “Although it is currently known that sequestration may occur, it is also known that efforts are being made to avoid sequestration,” the memo stated. “Thus, even the occurrence of sequestration is not necessarily foreseeable.”
John Irving, a former National Labor Relations Board counsel who helped draft the WARN Act, told the Huffington Post that DOL’s legal advice “is so far off the mark that you wonder why it’s being issued,” and would be unlikely to be upheld in court.
On September 28, 2012, just over three months before sequestration was initially scheduled to take effect, OMB reiterated its instructions to federal agencies to “continue normal spending and operations.”
Duncan’s warnings that school districts need to begin preparing now for sequestration cuts that would not go into effect until the following school year seem out of line with the”all is well” approach the administration had adopted until just recently.
Republicans accuse the administration of deliberately making the potential impact of sequestration worse by refusing to adequately prepare. “Every manager of these government agencies had an inkling of the sequester happening a while back, so you’d think maybe they would not have spent every penny, and slowed down entering into new contracts,” said a Senate GOP aide. “If they had, these cuts might not be that heavy a lift. It’s almost malpractice for these guys to running their agencies to be in this position. No manager wants to lay people off.”
“They certainly have done everything they can do to justify not planning for [sequestration],” a House Armed Services Committee aide of the administration’s efforts.