There’s a funny thing happening at federal agencies. When it comes to the details of the looming $1.2 trillion cut to their budgets, agency officials find themselves unable to explain just how those cuts would affect myriad programs on the ground. Instead, they have a unified message: talk to the Office of Management and Budget.
From the Agriculture Department to the Pentagon to the Social Security Administration, more than a dozen agencies have given National Journal the same stock response, redirecting reporters to OMB. (The exception was Justin Hamilton at the Education Department, who responded to a query with a link to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation.”)
Not that OMB, which has the task of making sure that President Obama’s vision is implemented throughout federal agencies, is willing to offer any more details. When asked why federal agencies have been told not to discuss sequester details, OMB press officers told NJ to review Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients’s July memo to agencies, telling them to continue normal spending. OMB also pointed to a 394-page report in September that estimates how much federal programs would have to be cut to meet the $1.2 trillion goal.
Obama’s own comments on the sequester offer insights on the administration’s motives for keeping a tight lid on the details of the potential cuts: The White House is hopeful Congress can reach an agreement during the postelection lame-duck session to head off the reductions. Obama said so himself at his third debate with Mitt Romney on Monday. In an interview with The Des Moines Register this week, Obama described the sequester as a “forcing mechanism” that could help motivate a polarized Congress to strike a broad deal on deficit reduction.
The lobbying community is getting the same nonanswers from agencies, even though they historically have better relationships with their individual agencies than OMB. Take the aviation community, which is obviously nervous because the Federal Aviation Administration could take a $1 billion hit. But the FAA is mum. “It’s a little scary because I don’t think the agencies know. Can the FAA wall off air-traffic control? It’s all up to OMB, and they never tell anybody anything,” said Jane Calderwood, vice president of federal affairs for the Airports Council International.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, whose members could be directly affected by sequestration, won’t talk to the media about its concerns. A written statement from NATCA spokeswoman Sarah Dunn said this: “NATCA is talking to members of Congress and others in the aviation industry about its concerns that the sequester could harm the efficient functioning of the U.S. aviation system.”
Lobbyists across a vast range of industries are in the dark about the details.
Julius Hobson, a lobbyist at Polsinelli Shughart who represents physician groups and long-term-care facilities, said he’s not surprised agencies have been mum ahead of the election—they want to avoid any information that could hurt Obama’s reelection bid. The sequester was mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act, which was agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans. But if the administration were to detail where the budget knife would actually fall, Obama could end up getting stuck with a greater share of the blame for the cuts.
“I’d be surprised if we saw any kind of information about sequestration before Election Day,” Hobson said in an interview. “The only reason we have anything about sequestration now is because Republicans pushed through the Sequestration Transparency Act, and that forced OMB to put out the September report. That’s all we’ve got, and there’s not going to be anything else, at least not before the election.”
Hobson said that the flurry of letters sent by Republican members to federal health agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Health and Human Services Department seeking details on health program cuts would also go unanswered.
The same is true in the defense world, where concerns over the potential impact of the $500 billion in extra reductions to Pentagon accounts have reached a feverish pitch. Sean O’Keefe, the CEO of EADS North America, a major defense contractor, told NJ in an interview this month he has not gotten any details from the Pentagon on sequestration.
“I’ve had plenty of discussions over there. I’ve met with several members of the leadership in the Pentagon over the course of the last several months. I’ve been honored to be invited by Secretary [Leon] Panetta himself to engage in industry debates about this question,” O’Keefe said. “I have not had any discussion with anyone about any individual program and how it would be affected by it.”
Sara Sorcher and Amy Harder contributed contributed to this article.