Advocates struggle to stop non-defense cuts in sequester

Schools, social service organizations, tech companies and unions are trying desperately to convince lawmakers that the other half of sequestration is as pressing a problem as the budget cuts looming for defense.

Congress has focused most of its energy and attention on the roughly $55 billion reduction in spending scheduled for the Pentagon in 2013, partly in response to warnings about huge job losses and a “hollowing-out” of the armed forces.

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Advocates say the automatic cuts scheduled for non-defense spending — also approximately $55 billion — are destructive as well, and need to be stopped.

But drawing attention to those cuts has proven difficult as the Jan. 3 start date for sequestration approaches, partly because the defense industry’s lobby campaign has been so vocal and aggressive.

“We are at a slight disadvantage because of the way the policy has been set up and advocacy-wise because they have so much more money than us,” Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, told The Hill. “Part of our message is defining ‘non-defense discretionary.’ If your kid is going to school, if you’re driving on the highway, if you’re using mass transit, if you’re checking the weather, you’re benefiting from non-defense discretionary.”

Packer is one of the organizers of the NDD Summit, a coalition of groups looking to stop the coming cuts to non-defense spending. The coalition was active over the summer, sending a letter to lawmakers arguing against the budget cuts and hosting a Capitol Hill rally.

Packer said the 2011 debt-ceiling deal that set the terms for sequestration has already cut into social services and other aid programs by capping non-defense spending. If triggered, the sequester will make across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

“We are saying that discretionary non-defense spending has already been cut. We have already paid our share,” Packer said.

Others are pushing a similar message.

The National PTA — which has more than 5 million members across the country in local Parent Teacher Associations — plans to send out sequestration tool kits this week. It will include a list of talking points for PTA members as well as a template letter and invoice to send to Congress that will show how much funding the PTA member’s school district would lose under the sequester.

“The sequestration approach would have a short-term impact for students and their families, but it will also have a long-term economic impact,” said Elizabeth Rorick, director of government affairs for the National PTA.

The National PTA estimates that education programs will be cut by $3.5 billion to $4.1 billion under the sequester, with $1.2 billion coming from Title I grants and $900 million taken from special education programs. Rorick is also worried about the Impact Aid program, which provides federal aid to local school districts that include children who reside on Indian lands, low-rent housing and military bases.

“There’s going to be a lot of high-need districts that are going to experience a disproportionate impact,” Rorick said.

Education advocates are not the only ones worried. This month, the Task Force on American Innovation sent a letter to congressional leaders and President Obama expressing concern about the sequester’s impact on scientific research, funded by both defense and non-defense spending.

“The looming cuts would devastate American innovation and deal a major blow to job creation. We are urging the Congress and the White House to sit down and reach agreement on a long-term deal. The option of ‘no deal’ should not be an option at all,” said Tom Gavin, vice president of external affairs for the Information Technology Industry Council.

The tech trade group was one of the letter’s signatories, along with several tech companies and prominent universities.

Like their counterparts in the defense industry, advocates for non-defense spending are warning lawmakers that thousands of jobs are at stake. They are pointing to several reports from Capitol Hill and trade groups that forecast massive job losses from the cuts.

Packer is even touting a report from the Aerospace Industries Association — the group that has been leading the defense industry’s campaign against sequestration — because it also details the economic impact of non-defense cuts.

The advocates have seized on reports from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and House Appropriations Committee Democrats that detail thousands of job losses for teachers, law enforcement officers and other civil servants if the sequester takes effect.

Further, major federal worker unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union have warned that the sequester will have a devastating impact on federal jobs.

Some advocates are even saying the military can withstand its half of the cuts.

“We are saying that the military budget can be cut. We don’t think that across-the-board cuts as done through sequestration are the best way of going about it, because it is more precipitous,” said Debbie Weinstein, executive director for the Coalition on Human Needs. “But over a 10-year period, the level of cuts is doable and it would leave the military in a fairly strong position.”

They are also saying lawmakers can bring down the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy.

“We would strongly encourage members of Congress to hold firm and not agree to a deal that doesn’t include revenues,” Weinstein said.

The education and social service advocates will have their champions in Congress. A spokeswoman for Harkin said the senator believes wealthier people should contribute to bringing down the deficit to stop the spending cuts from taking effect.

“Such an approach should reduce the deficit and create economic growth, and do so in way that requires the wealthiest Americans to contribute to the effort, rather than just eliminating ladders of opportunity for middle-class families,” said Kate Cyrul Frischmann, the Harkin spokeswoman.

Congress will need to act to stop sequestration after the election, and it might look to strike a short-term deal to delay the cuts to buy time for more negotiations in the next Congress.

“We are still very anxious because there’s no deals going on. It’s also completely 100 percent dependent on the election,” Packer said. “It’s the law. It’s going to happen unless Congress does something to make it not happen.”