US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Top Republicans on HELP, Appropriations, Finance Committees Question Administration Plans to Selectively Cut Programs for “Vulnerable Populations” in Sequester

Senators: Administration officials “cherry-pick sequestration examples that best suit their political needs;” ask whether spending will be reduced on items like travel, conferences, and paid time for federal employees performing outside union work

Friday, March 01, 2013

Washington, D.C., March 1 – Senior Senate Republicans on committees overseeing labor, health and education programs today sought details from the administration on the methodology behind its sequestration plans, which appear designed to “dramatically cut funding for programs that serve some of the most vulnerable populations.”

In letters to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, the senators write that “the President has had almost 19 months to propose a comprehensive plan to address these cuts in a more targeted way.  He has consistently failed to do so, and the automatic spending cuts will now go into effect because of this lack of leadership….The Administration continues to cherry-pick sequestration examples that best suit their political needs as the President campaigns around the country instead of offering a plan.”

Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) sent letters to Secretary Duncan and Acting Secretary Harris.

Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) joined the senators in sending a letter to Secretary Sebelius.

Each of the letters request details on “how the Administration plans on implementing the sequestration reductions,” and asks for details such as “how travel and conference spending by the Department will be affected,” or whether the agencies are “reducing official time allowed to employees to conduct union business at the cost of the taxpayers.”

In the letter to Secretary Sebelius, the senators note that the administration had already planned to cut child immunization given that the “post-sequester amount for immunizations is higher than the amount the Administration proposed to Congress” in its FY2013 budget proposal.

In the letter to Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, Alexander and Moran note that the administration’s warning of sequestration’s impact on Job Corps failed to acknowledge the agency’s own mismanagement causing “two years of budget shortfalls …and a suspension of enrollment of Job Corps students nationwide.”

In the letter to Secretary Duncan, Alexander and Moran note that the agency’s warning of sequestration cuts “fails to acknowledge that local school districts will have the final say in determining how cuts are implemented” and points out that the Administration continues unwise investments “in programs that are unproven and benefit only a few States and school districts.” 

The text of the three letters is below:

The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius

Secretary of Health and Human Services

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

200 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20201

Dear Secretary Sebelius,

We write to request important information about the actions your Department has taken to address the President's sequester as it relates to your budget.  We were disappointed by your February 1, 2013, letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which suggests you have decided to dramatically cut funding for programs that serve some of the most vulnerable populations.   Indeed, we find it surprising that while quick to outline potential harm, other operational expenses that could be cut are not even mentioned in your letter.

As part of the Budget Control Act, the President proposed, and Congress passed, automatic spending reductions to reduce discretionary spending.  This happened on August 2, 2011, as part of a comprehensive agreement to reduce spending and raise the debt ceiling.  The debt ceiling was raised; it is time to reduce the spending.  While we agree that the across-the-board automatic spending reductions are not an ideal way to reduce spending, the President has had almost 19 months to propose a comprehensive plan to address these cuts in a more targeted way.  He has consistently failed to suggest a bipartisan proposal, and the automatic spending cuts will now go into effect because of this lack of leadership. 

Despite the Budget Control Act being enacted on August 2, 2011, the Administration has only publicly provided piecemeal information to suite their political priorities.  In fact, the Office of Management and Budget has not released the percentage of the across-the-board cuts required under sequestration or the methodology used by the White House to justify their “estimates” on the “impact of sequestration.”  Instead, the Administration continues to cherry-pick sequestration examples that best suit their political needs as the President campaigns around the country instead of offering a plan.

For example, in the State-by-State Reports on the Impacts of the Sequester, the White House points to the decreased number of children receiving vaccines as a potential result of sequestration.  Unfortunately, you failed to acknowledge that your FY2013 budget proposal for these accounts reflects an even larger reduction than the sequestration amount.  The post-sequester amount for immunizations is higher than the amount the Administration proposed to Congress for this year.

Therefore, we would like your Department to please provide the following information to clarify questions that still remain about how the Administration plans on implementing the sequestration reductions:

  1. What sequestration percentage(s) was the Department requested to use when coming up with sequestration implementation plans?
  2. Please provide the detailed plan(s) for all Department accounts, including the options transmitted to the Office of Management and Budget, for how the sequestration reductions will be met. 
  3. Please include the cost savings generated for each measure outlined in the plan.Please provide details about how travel and conference spending by the Department will be affected. 
  4. Do you intend to institute furloughs for career employees?  If so, will political appointees – Schedule C and Non-Career Senior Executive Service – also be required to take unpaid time off?  Further, have you frozen hiring of political appointees, and if not, why not?
  5. Is the agency reducing official time allowed to employees to conduct union business at the cost of the taxpayers?
  6. Please provide a list of positions filled by the Department since the passage of the Budget Control Act on August 2, 2011, including the pay rate, position, and agency account they are paid from as well as identifying if they are career staff or political appointees. 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.  We would appreciate receiving your response to our concerns by March 8, 2013.  Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your staff contact [our staff].

Lamar Alexander                                                        Jerry Moran

Ranking Member, HELP Committee                         Ranking Member, Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee

Orrin Hatch

Ranking Member, Finance Committee

The Honorable Seth Harris

Acting Secretary of Labor

U.S. Department of Labor

200 Constitution Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20210

Dear Acting Secretary Harris,

We write to request important information about the actions your Department has taken to address the President's sequester as it relates to your budget.  We were disappointed by your February 1, 2013, letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which suggests you have decided to dramatically cut funding for programs that serve some of the most vulnerable populations.   Indeed, we find it surprising that while quick to outline potential harm, other operational expenses that could be cut are not even mentioned in your letter.

As part of the Budget Control Act, the President proposed, and Congress passed, automatic spending reductions to reduce discretionary spending.  This happened on August 2, 2011, as part of a comprehensive agreement to reduce spending and raise the debt ceiling.  The debt ceiling was raised; it is time to reduce the spending.  While we agree that the across-the-board automatic spending reductions are not an ideal way to reduce spending, the President has had almost 19 months to propose a comprehensive plan to address these cuts in a more targeted way.  He has consistently failed to suggest a bipartisan proposal, and the automatic spending cuts will now go into effect because of this lack of leadership. 

Despite the Budget Control Act being enacted on August 2, 2011, the Administration has only publicly provided piecemeal information to suit their political agenda.  In fact, the Office of Management and Budget has not released the percentage of the across-the-board cuts required under sequestration or the methodology used by the White House to justify their “estimates” on the “impact of sequestration.”  Instead, the Administration continues to cherry-pick sequestration examples that best suit their political needs as the President campaigns around the country instead of offering a plan.

For example, in the letter you sent to the Committee on Appropriations on February 1, 2013, the Department points to the permanent closure of Job Corps centers as a potential result of sequestration.  Unfortunately, you failed to acknowledge or take responsibility for the Department’s role in the gross mismanagement of the Office of Job Corps over the past several years.  The serious budget problems facing this program have led to two years of budget shortfalls, a FY2013 budget request that did not accurately reflect the true costs of the program, and a suspension of enrollment of Job Corps students nationwide.  While you highlight the impacts to Job Corps, you ignore the fact that the Department got us here in the first place.

Therefore, we would like your Department to please provide the following information to clarify questions that still remain about how the Administration plans on implementing the sequestration reductions:

  1. What sequestration percentage(s) was the Department requested to use when coming up with sequestration implementation plans?
  2. Please provide the detailed plan(s) for all Department accounts, including the options transmitted to the Office of Management and Budget, for how the sequestration reductions will be met.  Please include the cost savings generated for each measure outlined in the plan.
  3. Please provide details about how travel and conference spending by the Department will be affected. 
  4. Do you intend to institute furloughs for career employees?  If so, will political appointees – Schedule C and Non-Career Senior Executive Service – also be required to take unpaid time off?  Further, have you frozen hiring of political appointees, and if not, why not?
  5. Is the agency reducing official time allowed to employees to conduct union business at the cost of the taxpayers?
  6. Please provide a list of positions filled by the Department since the passage of the Budget Control Act on August 2, 2011, including the pay rate, position, and agency account they are paid from as well as identifying if they are career staff or political appointees. 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.  We would appreciate receiving your response to our concerns by March 8, 2013.  Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your staff contact [our staff].

Lamar Alexander                                                        Jerry Moran

Ranking Member, HELP Committee                         Ranking Member, Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee                       

The Honorable Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Ave SW

Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan,

We write to request important information about the actions your Department has taken to address the President's sequester as it relates to your budget.  We were disappointed by your February 1, 2013, letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which suggests you have decided to dramatically cut funding for programs that serve some of the most vulnerable populations.   Indeed, we find it surprising that while quick to outline potential harm, other operational expenses that could be cut are not even mentioned in your letter.

As part of the Budget Control Act, the President proposed, and Congress passed, automatic spending reductions to reduce discretionary spending.  This happened on August 2, 2011, as part of a comprehensive agreement to reduce spending and raise the debt ceiling.  The debt ceiling was raised; it is time to reduce the spending.  While we agree that the across-the-board automatic spending reductions are not an ideal way to reduce spending, the President has had almost 19 months to propose a comprehensive plan to address these cuts in a more targeted way.  He has consistently failed to suggest a bipartisan proposal, and the automatic spending cuts will now go into effect because of this lack of leadership. 

Despite the Budget Control Act being enacted on August 2, 2011, the Administration has only publicly provided piecemeal information to suit their political agenda.  In fact, the Office of Management and Budget has not released the percentage of the across-the-board cuts required under sequestration or the methodology used by the White House to justify their “estimates” on the “impact of sequestration.”  Instead, the Administration continues to cherry-pick sequestration examples that best suit their political needs as the President campaigns around the country instead of offering a plan.

For example, on February 24, 2013, you stated in regard to sequestration, “It just means a lot more children will not get the kinds of services and opportunities they need and as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs.”  Although the sequestration may have negative effects, your assumption as to how cuts will be applied, fails to acknowledge that local school districts will have the final say in determining how cuts are implemented.  In fact, school districts will have flexibility with regard to reductions and all cuts will not necessarily result in significant teacher layoffs.  Additionally, while the Department highlights the potential for teacher job losses under Title I and the Special Education Grants to States program, you ignore that the Administration has continued to advocate for investment in programs that are unproven and benefit only a few States and school districts which are funded at the expense of formula funded education programs.

Therefore, we would like your Department to please provide the following information to clarify questions that still remain about how the Administration plans on implementing the sequestration reductions:

  1. What sequestration percentage(s) was the Department requested to use when coming up with sequestration implementation plans?
  2. Please provide the detailed plan(s) for all Department accounts, including the options transmitted to the Office of Management and Budget, for how the sequestration reductions will be met.  Please include the cost savings generated for each measure outlined in the plan.
  3. Please provide details about how travel and conference spending by the Department will be affected. 
  4. Do you intend to institute furloughs for career employees?  If so, will political appointees – Schedule C and Non-Career Senior Executive Service – also be required to take unpaid time off?  Further, have you frozen hiring of political appointees, and if not, why not?
  5. Is the agency reducing official time allowed to employees to conduct union business at the cost of the taxpayers?
  6. Please provide a list of positions filled by the Department since the passage of the Budget Control Act on August 2, 2011, including the pay rate, position, and agency account they are paid from as well as identifying if they are career staff or political appointees. 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.  We would appreciate receiving your response to our concerns by March 8, 2013.  Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your staff contact [our staff].

Lamar Alexander                                                        Jerry Moran

Ranking Member, HELP Committee                         Ranking Member, Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee

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