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Washington Post - Sequester, meet Oversight

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By Jason Hicks

Lawmakers introduced government executives to the world of austerity during a pair of House oversight hearings on Tuesday. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Members of both parties accused each other of having it backward as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee checked the Obama administration's cost-saving practices.

GOP lawmakers accused the Obama administration of hyping the impacts of the government-wide spending cuts that took effect March 1.

"If our agencies can get to work and start planning instead of using scare tactics, we'd be better off," said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.)

Democrats said GOP lawmakers should take ownership of the automatic reductions, known as the sequester.

"Instead of trying to prevent the sequester from happening, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle welcomed it," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "In fact, they've embraced it."

Managers from the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and Agriculture defended their agencies' sequester plans against notions that the White House is trying to scare the public away from continuing the cuts.

Rep. Elijah Cummings described the reductions as "a real deal," saying "I know I've just told my employees to take two days of furlough." Spokeswoman Safiya Simmons, described the announcement as a "personnel action," adding that she could not comment further on the matter.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said agencies should follow the example of the Federal Communications Commission, which the congressman praised for doing "exactly what we described" by reducing its workforce through attrition and not implementing furloughs.

Managers from other agencies said no single approach would work as a one-size-fits-all for every division of the government. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) added that the sequester is a rigid policy that doesn't allow agencies to "selectively choose which programs or functions to fund or not fund."

Issa said any agencies concerned about potential impacts on the public should ask legislators to provide them with greater control over implementing the cuts.

Issa questioned whether agencies had taken the sequester seriously during the 19 months since it became a threat under the deal that Congress and President Obama negotiated to get past the debt-ceiling standoff in summer 2011.

Agency officials agreed that they had always viewed the cuts as a possibility. But Homeland Security undersecretary Rafael Borra said "there was an expectation within DHS -- and I would suppose in both the administration and Congress -- that sequestration would never come to pass."

Issa said both he and Obama signed the Budget Control Act in good faith. "It meant that you had to prepare for [the sequester], and apparently you didn't," he told Borra.

Republican committee members criticized the Commerce Department for trying to delay the Tuesday hearing until April, when Congress is expected to have a new stopgap budget in place to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year.

The Senate and House are passing around a resolution that could provide the administration with greater control over how it implements the sequester cuts, possibly changing the calculus for cost-saving moves within certain agencies.

Commerce officials had told the committee that they could speak with more certainty about sequester impacts after the last stopgap budget expires on March 27.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank spoke with confidence about the impacts of the cuts in a February letter to the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee.

Blank's letter warned of specific cost-saving measures including furloughs for up to 2,600 NOAA employees, delayed launchings for new satellites that help predict severe weather and a $15 million reduction in assistance to American exporters.

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