GOP senator charges feds with exaggerating sequester's impact

Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Wednesday requested more information from the Obama administration on the impact of the so-called "sequester," suggesting that the across-the-board budget cuts haven't had the dire economic consequences that were predicted.

Coburn's inquiry to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was prompted by a March report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which found that just one person was laid off by a federal agency because of the sequester.

The report detailed several other consequences of the sequester -- including the fact that hundreds of thousands of government workers faced furloughs last year, and nearly every federal agency curtailed hiring in response to the cuts -- but Coburn said the report's findings offered "good news" for federal employees. He called it "devastating to the credibility of Washington politicians and administration officials."

"The American people deserve to know the truth, especially if it suggests politicians' favorite programs can endure far more in budget cuts than sequestration imposed," he said in a statement.

Specifically, Coburn asked the OMB to provide him with information such as the number of permanent, federal civilian employees over the last five years and a list of agencies that have reduced their workforce because of the sequester. He also asked about the legal obstacles hindering agencies from making further reductions.

The across-the-board "sequester" cuts, which amounted to $85.3 billion in 2013, were required after Congress failed to reach a better budget agreement in 2011. When the cuts were finally applied in March 2013, President Obama said they were "just dumb."

"I don't anticipate a huge financial crisis, but people are going to be hurt," he said. "The longer the cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy."

The GAO report found that while just one department -- the Justice Department -- laid off an employee because of the sequester, more than 770,000 employees from various agencies were furloughed and 19 out of 23 agencies reported curtailing hiring.

The sequester also had an impact on jobs indirectly created by the federal government, since 16 agencies had to delay or rescope contracts and grants for core mission activities. For instance, Energy Department officials estimated that contractors reduced or left vacant approximately 1,000 positions in 2013, including laying off or voluntarily separating more than 300 of their employees.

Those figures did not include subcontractor employees, university researchers, and others without a direct contractual relationship with the Energy Department. A survey of scientific societies last year found that federal budget cuts resulted in hundreds of science and medical research jobs lost.

Along with job losses, the sequester has resulted in fewer and less efficient services for people. Health and Human Services estimated that Head Start programs, which promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families, served about 57,000 fewer children because of the sequester. Additionally, the Social Security Administration said that on average, applicants in 2013 waited almost a week longer for a decision on an initial disability claim than they did in 2012.

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