February 27, 2013

Crisis fatigue: Americans tune out budget cut talk

Josh Lederman / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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President Barack Obama warns of automatic defense budget cuts during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding on Tuesday.

AP

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House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wraps up a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he and GOP leaders challenged President Obama and the Senate to avoid the automatic spending cuts set to take effect in four days. Boehner complained that the House, with Republicans in the majority, has twice passed bills that would replace the across-the-board cuts known as the "sequester" with more targeted reductions, while the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, has not acted. He is followed by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas is at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

AP

And let's face it: When it comes to policy issues that can really put an audience to sleep, "sequestration" is right up there with filibuster reform, chained CPI and carried interest.

For all the angst about layoffs, furloughs and slashes to government contracts, the markets don't seem to be rattled, either. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, after falling below 13,000 at the height of the fiscal cliff debacle, has been buoyant ever since, spending the last month hovering just below 14,000.

"I shrug my shoulders because I don't believe any of those severe cuts will go through," said Karen Jensen, a retired hospital administrator who stopped to talk in New York's Times Square. "Life goes on as it has before."

But if the Obama administration hasn't managed to convince Americans these spending cuts could be the real deal, it's not for lack of trying.

Each day the cuts grow nearer sees a new dire warning from the White House about another government function that will take a hit if they go into effect — what White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has called a "devastating list of horribles." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned Monday that her agency will be forced to furlough 5,000 border patrol agents. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said 70,000 preschool kids could be removed from Head Start. Fewer air traffic controllers could mean 90-minute delays or longer in major cities, and visiting hours at all 398 national parks are likely to be cut, the administration has said.

The White House has circulated 51 reports — one for each state, plus the District of Columbia — localizing the effects of the cuts. On Tuesday, Obama took his cautionary tale to a shipbuilding site in Newport News, Va., calling attention to how the cuts could impede the military. The White House says in Virginia alone, about 90,000 civilians working for the Defense Department would be furloughed, for a nearly $650 million reduction in gross pay.

"The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare the states," Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Monday after governors from both parties met with Obama behind closed doors. "Now's the time to cut spending. It can be done without jeopardizing the economy. It can be done without jeopardizing critical services."

The age-old Republican desire for a scaled-back federal government makes it clear why, on the one hand, the GOP isn't scrambling to avert the cuts — especially when Obama insists on more tax revenues in any deal to turn them off. On the other hand, Obama is banking on polls that show if the cuts go through, Republicans are likely to bear most of the blame.

Both parties agree that if you're going to cut spending, an indiscriminate mechanism like the sequester is the wrong way to do it. After all, the whole point of the endeavor was to set in motion ramifications so unbearable that lawmakers would be forced to come together and hash out a better plan before the deadline.

Count James Ford of Louisville, Ky., among those still holding out hope.

"They'll come up with something to keep the thing going," he said. "They always do."

 

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