May 22, 2018
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Is Obama telling the truth about impact of automatic cuts?

Olivier Douliery | MCT
Olivier Douliery | MCT
President Barack Obama talks about automatic federal spending cuts that took effect March 1.
By Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

For the past two weeks, the online version of this column has looked deeply at various claims made by the Obama administration about the impact of the sequester.

We found that all too often, vague and fuzzy figures were turned into hard facts by the administration.

The best case for accuracy was made the Federal Aviation Administration, which has higher labor costs because of a 2009 contract with air traffic controllers and little wiggle room to reduce costs because more than 70 percent of its operations budget goes to pay salaries for controllers, supervisors, air safety inspectors and technicians.

Still, the administration may rue the day that it issued so many scary statistics with such specificity. If sequestration remains in effect for the rest of the fiscal year, reporters will certainly attempt to check whether the administration’s predictions came close to reality.

Here, in summary form, are the highlights of some of our conclusions.

“Up to 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start and early Head Start services.”

The sequester — which would order a cut of $422 million in Head Start — would begin to unravel an expansion in the program recently engineered by the administration. Enrollment had increased by nearly 70,000 students from 2009 to 2010 because of funding in the stimulus law.

Moreover, the 2008 enacted amount for Head Start, translated into 2013 dollars, would be $7.45 billion. The post-sequester total for Head Start would leave the program at $7.55 billion. So the Obama administration would still be slightly ahead of the game even after sequester.

The 70,000 figure stems from some simple arithmetic, not an actual determination of the number of children who would lose their place in the program. Administration officials took historic funding levels and the average cost per child to come up with a number, but they acknowledged programs could take other steps to reduce costs, such as transportation reductions.

“Federally assisted programs like Meals on Wheels would be able to serve 4 million fewer meals to seniors.”

The government currently funds about 219 million meals for the elderly, so this would amount to about two percent of the total. But since 2010, the administration’s budgets for senior meals already have been flat, generally resulting in fewer meals. In fact, federal aid currently contributes just one-third of the funds for such programs.

Administration officials said they based their figure on the cost per meal and other factors but acknowledged they did not make assumptions about whether states and recipients would engage in “atypical practices” in response to the reduction in federal funding.

Translation: The administration has no idea whether the suppliers of these meals will make up the shortfall in other ways; it just assumes that they have no alternative sources of funding. We found several examples in news reports of providers saying they had backup resources for the rest of the fiscal year.

“135,000 fewer children will get vaccines for diseases like measles and whooping cough.”

This refers to a $9 million reduction in funding for the Section 317 Immunization Program, which mainly gives grants to states and localities for child and some adult vaccinations. Administration officials assumed it would cost $68 for a child to receive vaccinations for pertussis (Tdap), measles and mumps (MMR), influenza and hepatitis B.

That calculation, however, includes contributions from a funding source that the administration, in its 2013 budget proposal, proposed to reduce for the 317 program. In fact, the administration wanted to cut overall funding for 317 by 10 percent, in part because it anticipated that the rollout of the president’s health-care law would result in cost savings and thus fewer government-funded vaccinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year began cutting off vaccinations for children with insurance, even if they had high co-pays or deductibles. The impact, in terms of fewer vaccinations underwritten by the government, is unclear.

“Janitors [at the Capitol] just got a pay cut.”

Officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), who employ janitors on the House side, and the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), who employs the janitorial staff on the Senate side, immediately denied this claim, made by President Obama at a March 1 news conference. The superintendent of the Capitol Building sent out an email stating: “This is NOT true.”

But White House aides insisted that the president’s statement was correct because janitors, in the words of spokesman Jay Carney, depend on overtime pay “to make ends meet.”

Although AOC officials declined to discuss janitor compensation, SAA officials provided details on the pay of the cleaning crews on the Senate side of the Capitol.

The 27 night janitors earn an average of $51,644 a year and the 16 day janitors earn an average of $49,481. The overtime pay averaged $304 per employee in fiscal year 2012 and $388 per employee thus far in the current fiscal year. In other words, overtime amounts to only pittance of the overall pay — about $6.50 a week on top of wages of $1,000 a week.

Even before the sequester was implemented, the janitors have already earned more overtime pay than they did in all of last year, largely because Obama’s inauguration took place on a federal holiday.

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