President Obama, backed by emergency responders, warns about the impact… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
President Obama's dire warnings about the looming federal budget cuts prompted a friend of mine to ask me Wednesday, "If I call 9-1-1, will I get an ambulance?"
The answer is yes; local ambulance services aren't included in the federal budget. But the question was a reasonable one, considering the words and images coming out of the White House on Tuesday. Backed by more than a dozen men and women in crisp blue uniforms, Obama declared, "Emergency responders like the ones who are here today, their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded. Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go."
That's pretty scary, and it was part of the list of horrible things Obama said would happen if Congress didn't avert the impending budget sequester. "Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country," he said. "Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings."
How does Obama know these things will happen? The Budget Control Act of 2011 requires the government to cut the same percentage from virtually every federal discretionary account if the sequester takes effect March 1, as scheduled. The accounts are relatively narrow -- see for yourself by inspecting the president's last budget request -- so he can credibly warn that the cuts won't be pain-free.
Nevertheless, the cuts forced by the sequester won't necessarily have the kind of granular effects that Obama implied. For example, in the Border Patrol, he should still have some wiggle room to take the money out of administration instead of cutting the hours of agents in the field. And federal discretionary dollars aren't the only, or even the dominant, source of funding when it comes to such things as emergency response, education, child care or healthcare.
The fact that Obama's speech would make anybody wonder about the fate of local ambulance services is a sign that the rhetoric went too far. As USC professor Jonathan Taplin, an Obama supporter, put it on his blog Wednesday: "This kind of scare talk ... will only backfire on the President when it turns out that the sky did not fall after the Sequester went through. Anyone who has run a business – big or small – knows that taking 5% out of a budget can be done without killing the enterprise."
Obama wants to replace the sequester with one of the alternatives proposed by congressional Democrats, postponing the cuts in domestic discretionary programs in favor of raising taxes on oil and gas companies, imposing a new minimum tax on million-dollar incomes and slashing farm subsidies. The point, Obama argues, is to buy time for Congress and the administration to work out the long-term deficit-cutting deal that has eluded them for more than two years.
He's right that the sequester is brain-dead and that the right path forward is a big, substantive deal on taxes, entitlements and spending. But Tuesday's event had the feeling of a campaign commercial that went too far to be believed. It was designed to let Obama deliver one stinging punch to Republicans who've opposed the Democrats' proposals: "Are you willing to see a bunch of first responders lose their job because you want to protect some special interest tax loophole?"
Although that makes for a nice sound bite, it puts Obama in the uncomfortable position of having to make sure that first responders lose jobs if the sequester happens. The masses may agree with Obama on the foolishness of across-the-board cuts, but they also expect that if the president can't persuade Congress not to make them, he'll start by cutting the lowest priority items in each account, not the most valuable ones.
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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey