Sequester politics on Capitol Hill: ‘Did not! Did too!’

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2013 


Are the lines longer now? A crowd of passengers in O'Hare International Airport

ALEX GARCIA — Chicago Tribune/MCT

— Republicans in the House of Representatives sought Tuesday to aggressively debunk dire claims by the Obama administration about some of the impacts of the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

At two oversight committee hearings, Republican lawmaker after lawmaker teed off on representatives from the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Agriculture, as well as from the Federal Communications Commission. They charged that the administration was politicizing the sequester by either over-hyping its impact or targeting budget cuts to maximize the pain they’d inflict on the public.

Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee repeatedly pointed out that several claims by President Barack Obama and Cabinet officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have been criticized by fact-checkers and editorial writers as exaggerating the impact of the $85 billion in mandatory cuts that began to take effect March 1.

“There’s the reality of sequestration, with the rhetoric of the Obama administration,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “The Obama administration has misled the American people with horror story after horror story about the sequester.”

White House officials defended their characterizations of the impact.

“We tried to warn about the real-world effects that imposition of the sequester would have on middle-class Americans across the country, on our defense industries and on our military posture, national security readiness,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “And those effects are being felt.”

At the morning hearing, Republicans were particularly incensed by a claim Napolitano made earlier this month that lines at some Transportation Security Administration checkpoints are already “150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect.”

However, several news media outlets, including The Atlantic and London’s Telegraph newspaper, have reported recently that overly long security checkpoint lines haven’t materialized yet at America’s major airports

Questioned about Napolitano’s assertion, Rafael Borras, the undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security, told the committee, “I am not aware that we’ve had a doubling of wait times at airports across the country.”

“I am aware of, in some instances, where at some airports, due to the elimination or reduction of overtime that it’s required – it’s resulted in some additional wait time,” Borras added.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., testily suggested that if security lines at airports are getting too long, the Homeland Security Department and the Transportation Security Administration should kick administrators out of their offices – including Napolitano – and put them to work at airports.

“I mean, we should have the secretary out there screening people, if we need to do that, to expedite people through the airport, and you,” Mica told Borras. “I mean, this is a joke. . . . She needs to find other employment soon, and you may need to find it, and some of the 3,000-4,000 people making $103,000 a year, and tell the public that they may be waiting three and four hours.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., took Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another Homeland Security Department agency, to task for the sequester-related release of more than 2,000 detainees, including 10 Level 1 offenders, regarded as serious threats. He said the savings versus the security risk wasn’t worth it because it cost the agency only about $122 a day to house each Level 1 offender, a figure that Borras said was correct.

Calculating that the costs to maintain them would be about $1,200, Gowdy said, “Is there nothing else in the department budget . . . where you could find $1,200 a day in savings, other than to release Level 1 offenders?”

House Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of shedding crocodile tears over the sequester. Republican lawmakers knew what the across-the-board cuts would do, Democrats said, and they wholeheartedly voted for them.

“Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle have accused the agencies of exaggerating the negative effects of sequestration for political gain,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. “They claim that the agencies can simply undo sequestration by eliminating wasteful or duplicative programs or reducing other spending. And they have criticized the administration” as implementing the sequester too slowly. “Every one of these charges made by my Republican colleagues is false.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this article.

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