Public Sector Roundup: Could Sequestration Really Happen?

When President Obama signed the Budget Control Act in August 2011, ending a congressional standoff over increasing the debt limit, the January 2013 deadline for Congress to agree on a way to reduce the federal budget deficit--and thus avoid the across-the-board cuts to federal agencies called for by the BCA's sequestration process--seemed to be comfortably in the future.

At this point, however, the number of days for Congress to act to avoid the defense and nondefense cuts, estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at about $984 billion over nine years, or almost $110 billion annually, is rapidly dwindling.

Congress will be in recess until Sept. 10. When members of the House and Senate return, the first order of business will be approving a six-month spending plan to keep the federal government operating from Oct. 1 through the end of March. While passage of the plan will avoid a possible government shutdown during election season, it will not end the threat of sequestration in January.

Although the 2012 national elections in November are expected to be a "tiebreaker," with one of the major parties presumably coming out on top, there is no guarantee of a clear winner. Suppose that President Obama narrowly wins re-election but the Republicans hold onto the House and fall just short of establishing control over the Senate. Who is supposed to compromise based on this result?

Before leaving for its recess, Congress passed legislation (H.R. 5872) requiring the administration to provide lawmakers with more details regarding the projected impact on federal agencies and functions of sequestration. The president signed the bill on Aug. 7, meaning under the terms of the legislation that the White House has 30 days to provide the required information. Let's hope the details are enough to force action in time to avoid cuts that were designed to be unthinkable for both parties.


In other public sector news:

  • Amy B. Monahan, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, warned at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures that state lawmakers should closely examine court precedents in their jurisdictions before embarking on changes to their public retirement systems, explaining that the courts remain largely unsettled on states' authorities to amend these systems.
  • Analysts from the Brookings Institution, citing figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said total government employment--including state, local, and federal employment--has dropped by more than 580,000 jobs since the nation's economic recovery began in July 2009.
  • In a bid to improve the qualifications of federal safety professionals, the American Society of Safety Engineers threw its support behind recommendations from the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health for more stringent hiring guidelines, including a requirement that all new applicants have formal training rather than just on-the-job experience.
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said that state governments in recent years have broadened and improved their whistleblower laws protecting public sector employees and contractors, contrasting the states' progress favorably with what PEER described as the federal government's lack of progress in this area.