Contrast this to the furor that the FAA and the aviation community drummed up last year when Congress was on the brink of partially shuttering the agency. The FAA told anyone who would listen that $2.5 billion in contracting money would be held hostage by a partial FAA shutdown and 4,000 employees would be furloughed. The agency provided detailed lists of the projects and offices that would be most affected by the shutdown. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took over a White House press conference to beg Congress not to let it happen.
There is a big difference between then and now. One could argue that the DOT tactics didn’t work the last time around. Congress let the FAA close anyway, almost egged on by the administration’s outrage, and it cost the Treasury millions in uncollected airline tax fees.
Now the only thing that has been made public is the OMB’s analysis. While those numbers are a starting place, they don’t give a full picture of how the cuts will work on the ground. For example, $2.5 billion would come from the National Institutes of Health. But that doesn’t give any indication of which research projects, grant programs, and labs will be cut, or by how much. On top of this, agencies and OMB can shuffle around the cuts to hit programs they think are inefficient and protect those with Obama administration approval.
With the cuts coming in just over two months, shouldn’t the agency be getting ready? Yes, say federal budget experts, but there are plenty of political reasons not to spill exactly how the cuts would work.
“Folks in the administration very much want the sequester to be averted,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, in an interview. “Then you should try to ensure for as long as possible that everything is at risk.”
In other words, giving specific details on what gets cut means lobbying groups and advocates representing programs that are lucky enough to avoid the sequester’s ax could stop pressuring members and the White House to turn off the automatic cut.
“When you have details, that also tells you what’s not going to get cut … if you try to have maximum pressure to get the sequester undone, that doesn’t help,” Holtz-Eakin said.
In addition to keeping the pressure on, having the Obama administration pick which programs it is most willing to cut risks handing Republican budget hawks some future targets. You can hear the talking points: If you were willing to give this up first under the sequester, why not do it now?
Should Congress fail to head off the sequester, final decisions on the cuts would be made between OMB and congressional appropriators, says Dan Mendelson, an associate director for health at OMB during the Clinton administration.
“Ultimately it will be like a mini-negotiated round of appropriations with the Congress,” Mendelson said in an interview. "And if you want to do some big deficit-reduction bill down the road, you have to make sure you aren’t angering the very people you need as allies.”
This is precisely the tactic that the American Association of Port Authorities is taking as terminal operators look at the variety of cuts to port-security programs that they could face under sequestration. AAPA President Kurt Nagle said he is spending most of his lobbying energy on Capitol Hill because he knows it is lawmakers who must act to avert the automatic cuts. “They obviously are going to need to come up with a deal that still cuts the budget, probably even more so in that scenario,” he said. “We continue to talk to the leadership in both the House and the Senate, and certainly in terms of importance of our programs.”
That sounds a lot like an appropriations negotiation: Don’t cut us, we’re too important.
Here’s another excuse for the “I don’t know” response. What gets cut will ultimately rely on the election. Here’s one example from Mendelson: If President Obama gets a second term, some health programs could be more likely to get cut, because 30 million uninsured people are expected to get insurance coverage. If Mitt Romney wins, in theory, fewer health programs would suffer cuts because he would try to repeal the health care law.
Sara Sorcher and Amy Harder contributed