House committees demand transparency, 'insight' into sequestration

Wednesday - 6/27/2012, 9:40pm EDT

Congress is demanding more answers about how $1.2 trillion in budget cuts set to take effect in January will be applied across the government.

The House Budget Committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill directing the Obama administration to provide Congress a report with specific details about how the spending cuts will affect federal agencies and programs.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee formally requested that the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeff Zients, testify before the committee on the "mechanics and impact" of the automatic cuts.

Budget Committee wants specifics

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who presided over the committee markup of the Sequestration Transparency Act, said the administration has not been upfront with Congress about how the automatic cuts will play out.

"This bill aims to provide transparency to the Congress and the American public," Ryan said in his opening statement. "While we want to replace these savings with common-sense reforms, and the House has passed legislation to do so, we cannot turn a blind eye to these across-the-board reductions and how they will be implemented."

The House has already passed a bill — the Sequestration Replacement Act, which Ryan also authored — that would avert sequestration by cutting other federal programs and would require federal workers to contribute more toward their retirement.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the automatic cuts would pare defense spending by 10 percent and nondefense spending by 9 percent. However, in testimony before Congress earlier this year, OMB officials said the administration had not begun planning for sequestration in the expectation that lawmakers would come up with an alternative deficit-reduction plan.

Ryan later requested OMB provide a complete list of programs exempt from sequestration. But, in a follow-up letter, Acting OMB Director Jeff Zients said OMB does not maintain such a list.

"Despite repeated inquiries, OMB has not provided the requested information and we still do not know how specific federal programs and activities will be affected," Ryan said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said there is bipartisan agreement that sequestration would be harmful to the economy and government operations.

"I'm all for getting more detailed information about the negative impacts of the meat-ax cuts, but I think our focus should be on avoiding what you just said — and we all agree — is an irresponsible approach to the budget and would be an irresponsible approach to cutting the budget," he said in his opening statement. "And that means coming up with an alternative approach to reducing the deficit in a credible and stable way."

A group of senators has introduced a similar bill, which would require OMB and the Defense Department to provide specifics on which programs would be impacted by sequestration by Aug. 15. The bill was tacked onto the Senate's farm bill.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R- N.H.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee's readiness subcommittee, said the tactic would likely be used again.

"We're going to attach this to every bill that walks," she said. "We're going to get the information out line-by-line so we can get this thing resolved."

HASC seeks 'additional insight'

In his letter to OMB, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, invited Zients to testify before the committee July 18, to provide "additional insight into the realities of sequestration."

Doing so could spur action by Congress to come up with an alternative plan, McKeon wrote.

"Given the apparent impasse, it is appropriate to provide information to members of Congress, industry and the public about the administration's interpretation of the law and how sequestration would be implemented mechanically," the letter stated.

Representatives from the defense industry, which has raised alarm bells about the threat of sequestration, also will testify before the committee, McKeon said.

McKeon requested Zients respond by July 9. "We are reviewing his invitation," OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer said in an email.

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