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As damaging sequester continues, Congress goes on 5-week vacation

Lawmakers flee Capitol Hill as the budget cuts from the sequester hurt the economy and tear a hole in the safety net for vulnerable families.

August 09, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), center, arrives at a July news conference at which he criticized House Republicans over the sequester.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), center, arrives at a July news… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

You may not have noticed, but the entire United States Congress sleazed out of town at the beginning of August for a five-week vacation, leaving much of the economy in a shambles.

Let's take stock. The economy grew in the second quarter at a pitiful annual rate of 1.7%. The average workweek for all private nonfarm employees decreased last month from the month before, as did their average hourly earnings. Job growth has been middling at best.

What has been Washington's remedy for an economy that plainly needs another shot of fiscal stimulus? The automated austerity regime known as the sequester, a package of budget cuts cynically designed to fall heaviest on our most vulnerable communities — the penniless, the disabled, the homeless and the very young. True, the sequester caused an early crisis in air travel, when it seemed that enforced furloughs of air traffic controllers would bollix up flight schedules. Congress remedied that provision, but quick.

Almost everyone in Congress and the White House agrees that the sequester, which was crafted to end the 2011 debit-limit standoff, is pure insanity. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) recently acknowledged on Fox News that the sequester was "not the best way to go about spending reductions." It was put in place, he said, "because Congress couldn't do the job it was supposed to a couple of years ago." In a recent interview, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called his support of the sequester "the worst vote I have cast in many years."

The product of a political culture in which intransigence is held up as the highest form of statesmanship, the sequester is policy designed to enshrine congressional incompetence into law.

It was a gun Congress held to its own head, designed to be so lethal that our lawmakers wouldn't dare to pull the trigger, the required across-the-board budget cuts being so draconian that Congress would have no option other than to reach agreement on a more measured response. No one told the trigger finger. So as of March 1, budget cuts totaling $85 billion this year alone went into effect.

So what's happened? It's fashionable to say that the dire predictions of economic damage from the sequester cuts haven't all come true, so things aren't that bad.

That's bosh.

In the first place, the cuts will shave as much as 1.2% off gross domestic product — after inflation — through this year and next, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They'll cost as many as 1.6 million jobs over that time frame, the CBO says. That's not counting the damage that has occurred since March 1.

By the way, none of that damage affects members of Congress personally. Their salaries aren't cut by the sequester. For reference, rank-and-file senators and congressmen touch $174,000 annually, not including the millions in the agriculture subsidies they can vote for their own family farms. Take a bow, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale)!

The people who are affected reside mostly at the other end of the income scale — for example, people dependent on public housing assistance.

Because of the sequester, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority, which provides housing vouchers for 23,000 individuals and households, stopped issuing new vouchers when any slots came open. That was to absorb a 5% cut in federal funds imposed by Congress' inaction.

"We're unfortunately the homeless capital of the world," Sean Rogan, the agency's executive director, told me recently.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's not to L.A.'s credit — or the nation's — that it compares favorably to some Third World countries. The waiting list for vouchers at Rogan's agency is 65,000 names long, while only about 1,000 slots open by attrition each year.

The agency hopes to avoid having to take vouchers away from families that are currently housed, but that will happen only if its application for a $1.2-million emergency grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is approved.

Rogan is hopeful, but without that money some 1,800 families or elderly or disabled individuals may lose existing vouchers, which would put them at the mercy of Southern California's tight rental market, virtually guaranteeing that many will lose their shelter.

If the sequester continues into next year and forces an additional 5% budget cut, those losses will be inevitable, he says. And that comes on top of relentless budget cuts imposed by Congress over the last two years.

"The sequester was just piling on," Rogan said. "Those impacts are real."

Then there's Head Start. The sequester hit the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which oversees Head Start programs for 18,000 pre-schoolers, on July 1, forcing it to cut 900 slots for 3-year-olds who otherwise would be getting their first preparation for kindergarten.

But Head Start is more than an early education program — it's the hub of a social welfare structure that includes family outreach.

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