White House offers sequester guidance

The White House has issued a new memo guiding agencies on how to implement the $85 billion budget sequester that goes into effect on Friday.

Congress has left Washington, guaranteeing that the sequester will go into effect at least temporarily. 

The memo dated Wednesday from Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel says that OMB now estimates a 9 percent cut to affected domestic agency budgets and a 13 percent cut to defense.

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It also makes clear that the White House is giving agencies leeway in implementing the cuts.

“Agencies' planning efforts must be guided by the principle of protecting the agency's mission to serve the public to the greatest extent practicable. Planning efforts should be done with sufficient detail and clarity to determine the specific actions that will be taken to operate under the lower level of budgetary resources required by sequestration,” Werfel wrote.

For the first time, OMB emphasizes that agencies should look to restrict hiring, employee bonuses and travel to meet the budget goals.

That decision was praised by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who this week wrote to Budget Director Jeff Zients pointing out apparently non-essential positions being advertised as open in the federal government for hiring. 

“I applaud the White House’s decision to reverse its opposition to using options like a hiring freeze and travel restrictions to avoid inflicting pain on the American people through their sequestration policy. OMB today reaffirmed the administration’s flexibility to make common sense budget choices instead of senseless across-the-board cuts. If the administration would like additional flexibility to avoid harmful consequences I would encourage them to seek that authority from Congress,” Coburn said.  

The memo reminds agencies that it must negotiate with unions where they represent employees. It also says that procurement will be affected.

“Due to the government's large acquisition footprint, sequestration will inevitably affect agency contracting activities and require agencies to reduce contracting costs where appropriate,” Werfel writes.

It also says financial assistance will take a hit in places.

“In light of sequestration, agencies may also consider delaying awarding of new financial assistance obligations, reducing levels of continued funding, and renegotiating or reducing the current scope of assistance. Agencies may be forced to reduce the level of assistance provided through formula funds or block grants,” the memo states.