Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Sequestration hits; we sort the facts

House Speaker John Boehner speaks outside the White House on Friday following a meeting with President Barack Obama.
House Speaker John Boehner speaks outside the White House on Friday following a meeting with President Barack Obama.

The canons fire Friday in Washington’s latest fiscal showdown  -- sequestration -- since President Barack Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives failed to hammer out a last-minute deal.

Until a compromise is reached, federal agencies will be hit with across-the-board budget cuts that are the result of a law passed in 2011, which neither side wants to claim now.

In Washington, the claims are flying about who’s to blame for this mess, and what will be left in puddles on the floor.

At PolitiFact, we’ve looked into numerous statements about the impact of the sequester’s sweeping cuts.

Obama, in a speech at the White House, said the policy is indiscriminate and "won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness, or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn’t make those distinctions."

We found that he glossed over the discretion that agency heads will have in distributing the cuts, but he’s right that sequestration does not take into account which programs are needed vs. which are extraneous. Our rating: Mostly True.

He earned another Mostly True when he said that "the majority of the American people agree with me" on his approach to reducing the deficit with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.

But our fact-checking also found that the president has exaggerated some of the specifics about the sequester.

Obama said "hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings" under sequestration. One widely cited estimate found that sequester cuts to two programs alone would leave 246,000 people without the types of services Obama mentioned. But those two programs were aimed specifically at flu vaccines and cancer screenings. They didn’t provide general primary care. We rated the claim Half True.

He also warned that "tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids." But Obama’s numbers are more of a worst-case scenario than a proven number. We gave him another Half True.

Obama waded into hyperbole when he said that as a result of sequestration, federal prosecutors would have to "let criminals go." It’s clear that U.S. Attorney’s offices are looking at a funding cut that would hinder prosecutions in some fashion. However, officials will have a fair amount of discretion in prioritizing what types of cases to pursue, possibly cutting back on civil cases rather than criminal ones. And the cuts wouldn't directly affect "criminals" at all, but rather suspects whose guilt has not been determined. Obama’s overreach earned a Mostly False.

And if criminals running wild doesn't sound scary enough, Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said in a speech on the House floor that unless the sequester is avoided, "homes are going to burn." Yes, federal firefighting dollars will be cut under sequestration, but that hardly guarantees a neighborhood inferno. That statement earned a Mostly False.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the claim that sequestration is already forcing layoffs of teachers. Many school districts, we found, are preparing for such cuts, but no pink slips are being handed out yet. Again, Mostly False.

Republican House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy made a dubious numbers claim in arguing that sequestration should be replaced only by spending cuts, not new tax revenues. "There's more money going in than any other time," he told Fox News. But the raw dollar amount of government revenue is a meaningless figure -- what matters is the percent of GDP. Our rating: Mostly False.

Finally, we looked at Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s assertion that sequestration will delay commercial flights. The FAA says the budget cut will force it to furlough air traffic controllers, without whom the nation’s air travel can’t fully function. Experts told us that the agency has considerable flexibility in keeping controllers on the job. Still, furloughs are a looming reality. Prepare for even longer waits at the airport, folks. This one’s Mostly True.