The sequester: Who to believe?

It's either devastating or a minor nuisance that the American people will hardly notice. Depending on one's ideology and political affiliation, notions of how bad - or not - the sequester will be rests on perception and not reality.

The truth is that neither side knows. But the White House is doing its best to ratchet up fear. And during this week before the sequester takes effect, they will be parading before the cameras a bevy of "victims" of the sequester in order to get the Republicans to accept another massive tax increase.

The Obama administration has issued a helpful state by state breakdown of where the cuts are going to happen. Missing from this list are justifications for these specific cuts. Why this program? Why this amount of money? Was there an alternative to cutting this percentage from a specific program?

The fact is, we get none of that. And we're supposed to take the word of the president and his department heads that this is the best they can do - that they had no choice but to cut these programs by this amount.

Washington Post:

Republicans questioned whether the sequester would be as harmful as the White House predicted and worked on a proposal that could preserve the cuts while giving the administration more discretion to choose how to implement them. Democrats expressed worry that they might be forced to accept the cuts if the public outcry is not loud enough in coming weeks.

Seeking to raise alarm among a public that has not paid much attention to the issue, the White House on Sunday released 51 fact sheets describing what would happen over the next seven months if the cuts go into effect.

The Washington area would be hit hard. Virginia, Maryland and the District cumulatively would lose $29 million in elementary and high school funding, putting at risk 390 teacher and teacher-aide jobs and affecting 27,000 students. About 2,000 poor children would lose access to early education. In the area of public health, less funding would mean 31,400 fewer HIV tests.

And nearly 150,000 civilian Defense Department personnel in the area would be partially furloughed through Sept. 30 -- with a total average reduction in pay of $7,500. (Defense Department officials previously explained that the furloughs would probably come in the form of workers being asked to take one day off per week, amounting to a 20 percent cut in pay.)

Let's take one federal agency; the FAA. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood assures us that beginning next week, he will have to begin furloughing air traffic controllers thus making flying an even worse experience than it is now.

But why furlough such vital workers? I wrote this yesterday:

The FAA has a budget in 2012 of $18.7 billion. That represents a $3 billion increase from 2010 -- a year the controllers managed just fine, thank you. Congress should investigate LaHood for incompetence if he can't cut 4% from a budget substantially larger than 2010 and keep the same level of service from air traffic controllers.

Understanding that there is little leeway for agency managers in what to cut, is LaHood really trying to convince us that an essential service like air traffic control needs to be cut drastically enough that it dramatically impacts air travel? This is not passing the smell test and LaHood should be forced to let us all look at his numbers -- where he's cutting and why.

That goes for the rest of these scare mongers. Republicans should demand a rationalization for all of these cuts and an explanation for why there was no where else these department heads and managers could realize savings.

The numbers are too good from Obama's point of view not to check.

LaHood's explanation for furloughing controllers is unacceptable:

The largest number of employees at DOT is at FAA, of which the largest number are FAA controllers," LaHood said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"We're going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do," he continued. "But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers, and that will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports."

Beginning on page 31 of the DoT budget (pdf) is the budget for the FAA. It appears to me that a competent manager could prioritize spending and cut something besides the hours of air traffic controllers.

I admit that my understanding of what has to be cut because of the sequester may be faulty. If every single program and line item in an agency's budget has to be cut, then LaHood has a point. But that is not my understanding and several Republicans are questioning the way the cuts have been made also.

If Obama keeps up the fear mongering and then nothing much happens after a few weeks of the sequester being in effect, he will be a laughing stock. And if these cuts have been rigged to inflict the most amount of pain on citizens, Democrats will be in a world of hurt themselves.

Would Obama take that kind of chance? He may, if he thinks he can get away with it. That's why Republicans should grill cabinet secretaries about how they arrived at the cuts they made. Only then can we be sure that any untoward effects from the sequester are real and not a deliberate negotiating ploy.