Sequestration: Are The Negotiations Just 'Theater'?

The Defense Department and other government agencies are preparing for the possible government budget cuts known as sequestration. Host Michel Martin talks with Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Robbins of the Defense Department and Washington Post 'Federal Diary' columnist Joe Davidson about who'll be affected.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we will have the latest in our series of conversations for Black History Month. We are hearing from African-Americans in the stem fields - that's science, technology, engineering and math. Today, we'll talk to a woman who's breaking barriers as a designer of video games. So that's coming up.

But first, we want to talk about a challenge that the country's political leaders set for themselves that they have not been able to meet yet: the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. The massive cuts were set up to force Congress and the White House to agree on a deficit reduction plan by March 1st.

The sequester would reduce federal spending by more than $1 trillion in the next decade, and $85 billion through the end of this fiscal year alone, but it could also cost thousands of federal workers their jobs. President Obama talked about this today. Here it is.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So these cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy. They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about what this will actually mean, so we've called upon Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Robbins. She's a spokesperson for the Department of Defense. She focuses on budget matters. Lieutenant Colonel, thank you so much for joining us.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL ELIZABETH ROBBINS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Joe Davidson. He writes the Washington Post's "Federal Diary" column. He's with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Joe Davidson, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOE DAVIDSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you've been covering how federal agencies are preparing for the sequester. Can you talk a little bit more and add to what the president talked about earlier today? How many workers might be affected? How many might actually lose their jobs?

DAVIDSON: Well, right now, they aren't anticipating anyone will actually lose their jobs, but I think that remains a possibility. What the administration is focused on, however, is the potential furlough of something well north of a million federal employees.

Secretary Panetta had talked about 800,000 in the Defense Department alone. And so, certainly, if sequester or these across-the-board budget cuts come about, there certainly will be more than a million federal employees who will be furloughed. And what that means is unpaid leave days. They'll go for days, up to perhaps 20 or more days, without pay, as much as 20 percent of their salary.

MARTIN: What would we - what might we see? How might people who don't work for the federal government experience these cuts?

DAVIDSON: Well, they'll experience it in a number of ways. In fact, we can already look to the Social Security Administration, which, because of current budget troubles, has already cut back on the number of hours. So this means longer lines for people. There's the possibility of food inspections being delayed. And so that means that people who work in the food processing plants also would be out of work for a while because the food inspection plants - I mean, the food processing plants need to be inspected.

And so if the food inspectors are off for a while, then the food processing plants have to shut down. In the area of scientific grants, there's certainly the potential that grants will be delayed. In some cases, grants have already been delayed, and this means that research into diseases, into illnesses, into any number of areas has been slowed already. And so that could happen in even a greater way.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Robbins, could you pick up the thread there? Could you talk about at the Department of Defense - is it only civilians who would be affected by this, or the civilian workforce that would be affected by this, potentially?

ROBBINS: Right. It's only our defense civilians. On July 31st of last year, the president indicated that he would use his authority under law to exempt the military personnel accounts. So our military will not be furloughed, but our nearly 800,000 defense civilians will be furloughed.

And these are the folks that fix our planes and tanks and ships. They staff our hospitals. They handle contracting. They run our budgets, financial and personnel management. So all these functions and more will be degraded, and we predict that our readiness will be adversely affected.

MARTIN: Can you give an example of something that civilians who have not a lot of experience with the military might be able to understand? I mean, certainly people can understand that, you know, wounded warriors are being cared for in the hospitals. What might the effect there be? I mean, I understand that nurses are also exempt. Is that correct?

ROBBINS: Well, those who protect the safety of life or property to the extent needed will be exempted from furloughs. And those are our policemen, our firefighters, our nurses and folks who do that sort of work. The other exceptions we're looking at are those deployed in a combat zone and foreign nationals that work with us overseas.

But the effects are pretty widespread. Our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, these are folks that do the fighting, that prepare for war. And our defense civilians are right there beside us doing the work that keep us ready and get us ready to go fight those battles. So to furlough, one day per week, our 800,000 civilians not showing up and helping us with that is extremely significant.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about what those looming budget cuts known as the sequester could mean for the country. Our guests are Army Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Robbins. She's a spokesperson for the Pentagon. Also with us: Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson. He writes the "Federal Diary" column. Joe, this is an intangible thing, but I'm curious about the sense of morale among the federal workforce as a consequence of this.

DAVIDSON: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, often, there's a sense that this is never really going to happen, so people kind of just put their heads down and keep working.

DAVIDSON: Well, I think that's a good question.

MARTIN: But there's a sense that this might be different this time.

DAVIDSON: Well, I think that there is certainly a sense that this might be different, because first of all, the March 1 deadline is right upon us. We're very close to it. And we've come close before to government shutdowns and other budget reductions. And all of this, though, I think has a wearing effect on federal employees.

For one thing, they always have to prepare for the possibility of a shutdown, or in this case a sequester, or these budget cuts. And then in previous cases, it hasn't happened. But that takes away - that preparation takes away from actually - from the work of the agency, because they're just preparing not to do any work. And...

MARTIN: How do you that? How do you prepare not to do any work?

DAVIDSON: Well, you have to - you have to make sure that things that are kind of in the process come to a stop, or at least a gradual halt. You just can't, like, not show up for work one day. I mean, the government is such a massive machine, that in order to stop it, kind of like a huge ship, it takes a moment. It takes a minute for it to stop.

And so there's some preparation involved in terms of closing down operations that takes more than, like, an hour to do.

MARTIN: So, for example, if you had scientific experience where you had live cultures, for example...

DAVIDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...you'd have to figure out how those were addressed in your absence. What would you do?

DAVIDSON: Exactly. You'd have to figure out a way to deal with those. Maybe that means transferring them to another agency, another university. It means doing something to take care of those projects.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Robbins, what about you? Are there preparations for slowing operations in - with the possibility of the sequester happening at the Pentagon? And can you describe what some of those are like?

ROBBINS: Yeah, I don't think you can underestimate how much effort it's taking to manage under a continuing resolution without an FY13 appropriation, prepare an FY14 budget and prepare for sequestration. You know, we're only manned as far as our comptroller, our budget folks, to prepare a budget each year.

And so the additional work, the additional stress is pretty significant on our civilians. You know, they're working for a firm, if you will, that has frozen their pay for nearly three years, told them they're going to take a 20 percent cut from leave without pay for five months. So their morale is understandably not good.

They're worried and frustrated. They're incredibly dedicated and they're doing their jobs and trying to figure out how to keep the mission going, keep the ships afloat, if you will, while they'll have to be gone one day a week.

MARTIN: Joe Davidson, you've been covering the negotiations on Capitol Hill. Can you just describe - to the degree that you can, because it just seems like so much theater. One has a hard time sort of figuring out what's real and what's part of the negotiations, but do - for the most part, do people feel that these budget cuts are, in fact, going to go forward?

DAVIDSON: Well, there's this sense that almost nobody wants them. I can't say nobody, in fact, but almost that they're going to happen, anyway. You heard the president, today, talking about the severity of these cuts. Everybody realizes the severity, yet the two sides seem to be so far apart, that while I think there continues to be some hope - diminishing - but some hope - people are no longer optimistic that the sequester can be avoided.

And let me add just one thing. While, in the Defense Department, their law enforcement officers may not be cut, I think people should know that, in other agencies, law enforcement officers will be cut. And, in fact, the White House said the equivalent of 1,000 federal agents could be affected by this sequester.

MARTIN: And what about at the airports, for example? The (technical difficulties) agents, for example?

DAVIDSON: Well, if you don't like lines, they're going to get longer, probably.

MARTIN: Because even those agents - those are not exempted from this cut?

DAVIDSON: No. They're not exempted, so there will probably be longer lines at the airport because you'll have fewer transportation security officers on duty at any one time.

MARTIN: Is there any operating principle at work here in deciding who gets furloughed and who doesn't, or is that the point of the across-the-board cuts? Is - there is not meant to be...

DAVIDSON: Right. It was just...

MARTIN: There are not meant to be exemptions except for the ones that Lieutenant Colonel Robbins outlined?

DAVIDSON: Right. And the Veterans Affairs Department is excluded. But generally, it's across the board. It's meant to be severe. It's meant to be so severe so that Congress will find an alternative. That's the whole point - that it's supposed to be very severe so Congress will be forced to act. But so far, Congress has not acted and it only has, you know, until March 1st to do so.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel, to the degree that you feel comfortable saying so, what are the operations or the concerns that the leaders of the Pentagon fear most, if you don't mind saying?

ROBBINS: Well, the effects of the ongoing continued resolution and sequestration have led to some significant events already. On February 5th, the deployment of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Harry Truman and the crews of U.S.S. Gettysburg was postponed to the central command area of operations. That means that they aren't going. They're staying in port, and the folks down range, to include our adversaries in Iran, may notice that we don't have a second aircraft carrier floating around, ready to act.

And, on February 8th, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln didn't go into its 25 year refueling and overhaul called the re - RCOH...

MARTIN: Well...

ROBBINS: ...at Newport News, so that was postponed. So our readiness is already starting to be degraded. Our chairman said that...

MARTIN: OK, OK.

ROBBINS: ...in a couple of months, our readiness will be degraded and, within a year, we'll be unready.

MARTIN: Oh, all right. Well, a lot to think about there. That was Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Robbins. She's a spokesperson for the Defense Department. She's serving with the Army. Thank you for your service, Lieutenant Colonel. We thank you for that and thank you for joining us today.

Joe Davidson writes the "Federal Diary" column for the Washington Post. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thank you, ma'am.

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MARTIN: Coming up, the latest in our series of conversations for Black History Month, we will meet a woman who's changing the game in video gaming. That's coming up. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please, stay with us.

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