- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

House Republicans on Tuesday accused federal agencies of failing to prepare for the automatic sequester cuts, saying they had two years to get ready but instead the administration spent time on “scare tactics.”

But Democrats and agency directors said the problem was dysfunction on Capitol Hill, which they said has created a system that has endangered crucial functions such as meat inspections and defense operations.

“When you cut $85 billion out of a budget over the course of seven months, there are consequences — duhhh,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.

The sequesters are now more than two weeks old and both sides say they are likely here to stay, which means the focus has turned to setting up who will take the blame once voters begin to feel the pinch.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee used a hearing Tuesday with budget officials from a trio of government agencies to probe what they’ve decided to cut and what they’re still spending money on — such as new hiring.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, the Texas Republican who presided over the hearing, pressed a Commerce Department official on whether the sequester was responsible for delays in plans to launch hurricane-predicting satellites in 2015 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration — as he testified — or if poor management and scheduling were to blame.

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He then turned to the Agriculture Department, questioning why it would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on public service announcements such as “Save Our Citrus.”

“That’s a lot of money to produce a PSA” he said, noting he checked with friends in radio and found out many are run for free. “If y’all want to do some more, I’ll do ‘em for free in my office for you.”

But the budget officers said their hands are tied on most of the spending and cutting decisions.

David Robbins, managing director at the Federal Communications Commission, said his agency needs to cut 5 percent of its regular budget, or $17 million, but about 95 percent of the agency’s expenditures are fixed costs that are difficult to change on the fly.

“So our starting point for flexible budget cuts is lower than would first appear,” he testified. “With a budget this small and targeted, there is not sufficient room to re-prioritize to ensure that we can handle contingencies and emergencies through the year.”

Michael L. Young, budget director for the Agriculture Department, said his agency’s budget has been slashed by about $2 billion because of sequestration.

The agency is trying to shuffle around funds to cover necessary operations, but they may have to furlough food inspectors for 11 days because “there are no other accounts from which the agency could transfer funds to offset the shortfall.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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