The sequester isn’t going away

After Democrats held the edge on the fiscal cliff deal back in January, many on Capitol Hill seemed to expect that Republicans would quickly fold when budget cuts from the sequester started hitting home and hitting the headlines.  But that certainly didn’t happen in the recent battle over furloughs of air traffic controllers.

Instead of the GOP retreating, Republicans have held their ground on the sequester, making it seem like those automatic budget cuts won’t just be wiped away by the Congress in coming months.

Instead of adding in extra money, Congress has given a number of agencies budget flexibility to deal with the automatic cuts, basically making that agency or department set their own priorities for what gets funded and what does not post-sequester.

The FAA situation is a perfect example. Republicans repeatedly charged that the FAA was sitting on all kinds of unused money which could easily be shifted into FAA accounts to avoid furloughs of air traffic controllers.

And the final legislation approved by Congress does exactly that, taking unspent money from “Grants-in-aid for airports” – basically an airport improvement fund, and shifting that to pay the air traffic controllers.

But the FAA fix got a big thumbs down from the President over the weekend, who labeled it a Band-Aid approach.

“It’s not a responsible way to govern,” the President said in his Saturday address.

“There is only one way to truly fix the sequester: by replacing it before it causes further damage,” Mr. Obama added.

But Republicans aren’t in any hurry to replace the sequester with a combination of new tax increases and different budget cuts, the so-called “balanced” approach advocated by Democrats and the White House.

And that may mean a broader drive to give individual agencies budget flexibility to deal with the sequester, since GOP lawmakers aren’t exactly ready to increase spending either.

Budget flexibility was already done at the TSA, the Justice Department, the FBI, the Border Patrol and more – as they moved money around to avoid furloughs.

Could that be the formula for the rest of the government?

One reminder about the President’s call to do away with the $85 billion in sequester cuts – that plan is built into his budget.

And so, every federal agency has been on Capitol Hill in recent weeks for budget hearings, asking for a 2014 budget that assumes the automatic budget cuts go away.

“The entire President’s budget is based on a premise that the sequester is resolved,” said the FAA Administrator last week at a House hearing, “and we simply conform to that.”

But many Republicans don’t see that happening.

“It seems to me a pretty dangerous assumption to assume it’s all going to go away,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), at the same FAA hearing.

In other words, Republicans are sending the message that if you are planning on reverting back to pre-sequester funding levels for your agency, you probably should not.

So, what’s next?

Maybe other bills to give budget flexibility to different departments and agencies?

Or maybe the Congress might actually get down in the weeds of the budget and start picking and choosing winners on their own.

But that would be a lot of work.

For now, the sequester is staying. How the Congress deals with it – and maybe more importantly – how the individual federal agencies and departments deal with it (across the board flexibility?), we’ll see what happens in the weeks and months ahead.