Budget cut warnings may prove to be harsher than reality
WASHINGTON – Get ready for two weeks of intensifying warnings about how crucial, popular government services are about to wither. Many of the threats could come true.
President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans made no progress this past week in heading off $85 billion in budget-wide cuts that automatically start taking effect March 1.
Lacking a bipartisan deal to avoid them and hoping to heap blame and pressure on GOP lawmakers, the administration is offering vivid details about the cuts’ consequences: trimmed defense contracts, less secure U.S. embassies, furloughed air traffic controllers.
Past administrations have seldom hesitated to spotlight how budget standoffs would wilt programs the public values.
When a budget fight between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans led to two government shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996, some threats came true, like padlocked national parks.
Others did not.
Clinton warned that Medicare recipients might lose medical treatment, feeding programs for the low-income elderly could end and treatment at veterans’ hospitals could be curtailed. All continued, thanks to contractors working for IOUs, local governments and charities stepping in and the budget impasse ending before serious damage occurred.
This time, at stake is not a federal shutdown but a range of automatic cuts. Between March 1 and Sept. 30, the remainder of the government’s budget year, it would mean reductions of 13 percent for defense programs and 9 percent for other programs, according to the White House budget office.
The cuts, plus nearly $1 trillion more over the coming decade, were concocted two years ago. Administration and congressional bargainers purposely made them so painful that everyone would be forced to reach a grand deficit-cutting compromise to avoid them.
A key reminder: Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits, Medicaid and a host of other benefit programs are exempted. The cuts take effect over a seven-month period; they don’t all crash ashore on March 1. If a bipartisan deal to ease them is reached, lawmakers could restore some or all the money retroactively.