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A Blog from New America's Federal Education Budget Project

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Sequestration Deadline Imminent, but 2013 Funding Remains a Question Mark

Published:  February 26, 2013

Everyone wants to know the latest news on sequestration, the spending cuts slated for Friday, March 1. Back in January, we ran a post that explained the unknowns and the knowns about sequestration; the latest news is that there is nothing new to report in either camp. We also explained that March 27, with the expiration of all appropriations funding, is where all the action will be – not at the March 1 sequestration deadline.

It seems the White House didn’t read our post, because the Obama administration this week released a series of fact sheets detailing by state the jobs that will be lost and anticipated funding cuts as a result of the across-the-board cuts set to take effect on March 1.

According to the White House documents, California could lose as many as 1,210 teachers and teaching aides. Some 2,300 Pennsylvania children could be dropped from Head Start. Over a thousand low-income parents could lose access to child care in Illinois. And that’s just the start of the pain.

The across-the-board cuts were triggered when the Congressional supercommittee created by Congress and the White House in the summer of 2011 failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction measures. Congress delayed the cuts from January 2 to March 1, 2013. Now, non-defense discretionary spending, including most federal education spending, faces a 5.1 percent cut beginning Friday.

In citing such precise numbers, the White House is pretending to know the 2013 funding levels that exist nowhere in federal law. Federal programs are currently operating under a “continuing resolution” (CR) – a temporary funding measure that maintains spending at the previous year’s levels – set to expire on March 27. That means there is no funding appropriated yet for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2013.

Once the CR expires, education funding drops to zero, at least until Congress passes a budget or a continuing resolution. When they do finally appropriate funds, contrary to the sequester’s blunt across-the-board cuts, lawmakers must set the specific funding levels for each program. And those funding levels need not match the post-sequester figures for any specific program that the White House is citing. In short, the sequester is in place for less than a month before the funding it cuts expires completely.

So, really, this isn’t any different than the routine expiration of CR, except for one caveat. Congress can’t pass a funding bill that exceeds post-sequester funding levels in aggregate for non-defense discretionary programs without it being enforced by – yes – another sequester. But it can allocate that lower funding amount (roughly equivalent to fiscal year 2008 levels) to whichever programs lawmakers choose and the president is willing to sign into law. That is what makes the White House’s precise numbers on the sequester cuts – down to the numbers of students – so absurd.

Moreover, members of Congress could pass an appropriations bill on or before March 27 that “busts the caps” by spending more than the aggregate limit, but in the very same bill turn off the resulting sequester. As an additional note, those spending caps are laid out in law through fiscal year 2021, a mechanism that will force lawmakers to return to the issue and make difficult spending decisions year after year if they don’t cancel the caps.

Republicans in the House, however, have adopted the continuing resolution as one of their latest strategies and look set to draft a CR right at those limits, even while the president shows every intention of demanding that they send him a bill that busts the caps and turns off the sequester. According to an article in National Journal, House Republicans will refuse to take up funding plans for 2013 until after the sequester hits and funding levels drop rather than before the sequester, just in case efforts to cancel the sequester are successful.

For their part, Democratic lawmakers have already successfully won at least one triumph. In a deal passed by Congress to delay the sequester at the eleventh hour (the so-called fiscal cliff deal reached January 1), Democrats in Congress successfully included new revenue increases. Republicans had considered tax hikes off-limits, but Democrats managed to pass the deal even without any spending cuts. Now Republicans have an opportunity to inflict spending cuts; whether or not revenue increases will be included remains to be seen.

Readers could be forgiven if they fail to notice the sky falling on Friday as the nation officially reaches the sequestration deadline – few of the education cuts, at least, will be felt immediately and nowhere near as precisely as the White House says. But they should continue to keep their eyes on the politics of the March 27 continuing resolution deadline.

For more on how this might affect early education, check out this post from our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

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