President Obama has been highlighting, with increasing urgency, all the ways in which the sequester – the across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense discretionary spending scheduled to hit at the end of next week – would be bad for average Americans and could do serious damage to the economy.
What he hasn't said, but what's abundantly clear from looking at where the cuts would hit, is that the sequester also would make virtually all of Mr. Obama's second-term legislative agenda, including a few items that have Republican support, essentially dead on arrival.
At an event Tuesday with first responders whose jobs could be eliminated by the sequester, Obama spelled out the consequences of allowing the cuts to take effect: "This is not an abstraction," he said. "People will lose their jobs."
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That's true. And many of those job reductions are poised to hit in areas where Obama would actually need an increase in federal spending and activity in order to enact the legislative agenda outlined in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses.
Consider immigration reform, one of Obama's top legislative priorities. With a bipartisan group of senators currently working on a bill – and with the Republican Party looking for new ways to reach out to Hispanic voters – it appears to have a decent chance of passing. But many conservatives have made clear that they will only support a comprehensive reform bill if it makes securing the border a precondition of giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
And beefing up border security could become all but impossible if the sequester takes effect – since it will force big cuts in the number of border patrol agents. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the sequester will lead to the elimination of 5,000 agents over the next year (out of a total of 17,500). Noting that she'd just spent the previous day testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform – where she was repeatedly urged by Republicans to do more on border security – Napolitano joked that she felt like she was having "a little bit of an out-of-body experience."
Then there's gun control, another top issue for Obama. The gun-control measure that appears to have the most bipartisan support right now is to make background checks mandatory for all gun purchases, including at gun shows. That proposal wins near-universal support from the public, according to polling.
But the sequester could make any proposed expansion of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which conducts criminal background checks on prospective gun buyers, extremely difficult. Why? The NICS is operated by the FBI, and sequestration would hit the FBI directly, reducing the number of agents – as well as the number of ATF agents and US attorneys – by an estimated 3,700. According to one report, the cuts could cripple even the current, nonuniversal background-check system by making the checks take longer, making them unavailable on weekends (when most gun shows take place), and allowing more people to slip through the cracks. Likewise, the reduction in US attorneys and ATF agents could make any proposal to crack down harder on gun crime – another measure often put forward by Republicans as a way to combat gun violence – a moot point.
Needless to say, other items on the president's agenda that face even stiffer political headwinds, looked at in the context of the sequester, seem even more improbable. Universal preschool? Probably a pipe dream, given that 15,000 teachers and aides would lose their jobs as a result of the sequester – which, incidentally, would also cut funding for Head Start, the nation's current and popular public pre-school program. Climate change? It's hard to see how that goes anywhere, given that the sequester would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, and would also cut funding to NOAA – which could impact the nation's ability to accurately predict major weather events like hurricanes.
Of course, there's always the chance that Congress finds a way to restore funding to some of these areas after the sequester hits. But given their current track record, we wouldn't count on it. Which means that the sequester could wind up dictating – in a major way – how much, or more accurately how little, of Obama's top priorities ever become law.