WASHINGTON — To some in Washington and Cedar Rapids, the forced federal budget cuts that have been in effect since March 1 have been a disaster. To others, they have been a worthy experiment.
But from social services to education services to furloughs at Rock Island Arsenal and possibly to the Cedar River flood control efforts, one reality is clear — the forced cuts known as sequestration have had an undeniable, if less visible, impact on Eastern Iowa.
Another reality: Sequestration may be here to stay.
On Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, Congress must either pass new appropriations bills to keep the government running or a stopgap measure known as a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution simply would continue the current budget — including sequestration.
Sequestration was triggered when Congress exceeded spending limits set by the 2010 Budget Control Act. With new appropriations bills, avoiding such arbitrary cuts would only be possible if targeted reductions could keep total spending under those limits set by the BCA.
It’s a good bet that won’t happen, and the existing situation will continue. Congress doesn’t even return from its August recess until Sept. 9, and when it does, it will only hold about nine working days for the rest of September. Add to that the fact that Congress is about as polarized as possible, and it seems likely sequestration is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Republicans welcome that scenario.
“Sequestration, while not an ideal way to institute spending reductions, was an important and necessary step to start getting our fiscal house in order,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “We need to continue to hold the line on unnecessary spending, particularly when we’re going to face another debt limit increase in October.”
But the idea of continuing cuts scares Eastern Iowa congressmen such as Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa. Loebsack and Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, voted against the legislation that created sequestration, and Loebsack said it has punished Cedar Rapids’ social network.
“I don’t think making arbitrary, across-the-board cuts serves Iowa communities or the American people very well,” Loebsack said. “No business would ever run their budget like that. Sequestration has senselessly caused workers at Rock Island Arsenal to take a pay cut through no fault of their own, cut vital services like Meals on Wheels, and affected our children through access to Head Start. These all have reverberating effects on our communities and local economies.”
Braley said sequestration has allowed Congress to dodge the responsibility of making spending cuts themselves. He said sequestration “looks likely to continue” even though it has been “a failure.”
“It’s cut just as much from programs that work as it does from programs that are wasteful, and Congress could actually do more to cut spending and reduce the debt if it took a more targeted, responsible approach to cuts,” he said.
Likewise, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pointed out that the “extreme” cuts have hurt valuable efforts such as health and science research.
“That is what Iowans need to understand,” Harkin said. “We were elected to make choices and find compromise as a Congress. Sequester is probably one of the worst ways to deal with the budget, by not making choices on critical funding and cutting everything indiscriminately. … Allowing these careless sequester cuts to continue damages our progress on the path to creating jobs and strengthening our economy.”
It is difficult to determine how much the Cedar Rapids area has lost in federal funds because of sequestration. Perhaps the most important local project dependent on funds from Washington — the $101 million Cedar River flood control effort — still is stuck in the engineering/design work phase. But Hilary Markin, a spokeswoman at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District, said it’s unknown if the situation is because of sequestration or not.
Local manufacturers dependent on federal dollars, such as Rockwell-Collins, say they have weathered sequestration only because they were prepared. Rockwell Collins spokeswoman Pam Tvrdy-Cleary said the firm factored the possibility of the situation into its plans for the current fiscal year.
“In addition, more international defense wins in regions such as Brazil and the Middle East, as well as continued growth on the commercial side of our business have helped served as a buffer for our company,” Tvrdy-Cleary told The Gazette.
Perspectives such as those have convinced Timothy Hagle that sequestration hasn’t hurt enough Iowans to cause them to pay more attention yet. Hagle, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa, said the Obama administration predicted doom-and-gloom results that haven’t happened yet.
“It’s an odd thing — they suggested it was such a bad thing, and they’re still making that case,” Hagle said. “And there’s been some individual layoffs and furloughs, but by and large it hasn’t had a major effect. My impression is that people aren’t thinking about it because there’s other things to worry about.”