Sequester: How People Helping the Jobless End Up Jobless

May 16, 2013

Several years ago, in anticipation of entertaining my 7-year-old on an airplane, I downloaded history and civics episodes of School House Rock to my iPod, including the legendary "I'm Just a Bill." It seemed semi-defensible as a semi-educational exercise en route to our semi-educational spring break in Washington, D.C. Also, I never pass up an opportunity to impose my 1970s Saturday morning nostalgia on my kid.

In that legendary School House Rock episode, my son learned from the tenacious, slightly self-deprecating, anthropomorphic "Bill" that lawmaking is an affirmative, proactive process that Congress undertakes to solve problems. I thought about that this week as I read about a group of nearly 500 people facing layoffs in Washington state and Idaho as a result of the sequester.

Joining the ranks of the unemployed, these 500 people could now be in need of re-employment services. There's just one problem. These 500 people were the ones providing re-employment services. And they will likely have colleagues in other states joining their ranks soon. These layoffs are partly due to funding cuts to employment and job training programs under the sequester, a policy that was not the result of an affirmative, proactive process; a policy that was never meant to take effect.

The sequester became policy because Congress failed to act. A provision in the Budget Control Act (BCA) directed Congress to reduce the deficit by about $1.2 trillion over ten years through spending cuts, revenue increases, or a combination of the two. It stipulated that should Congress fail in its assignment, defense and non-defense discretionary programs (like education, job training, public safety, and public health) would be subjected to sequestration: automatic, across the board spending cuts.

The sequester was meant to be a threat so outrageous, so unimaginable, that it would force Congress to engage in affirmative, proactive policy-making. It was thought to be an effective threat because the only thing that nearly every member of Congress agreed upon at the time was that unexamined across-the-board spending cuts were bad policy.

As a result of the sequester, federal employment and training programs, which have been cut by more than $1 billion over the last three years, took an additional $450 million in cuts in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, which will result in nearly two million fewer people getting the job training and re-employment support they need. Under the BCA, these programs will continue to face similar cuts in each of the next eight years. This will widen the skills gap in this country, affecting both workers who need to get back in the labor market and businesses that can't grow because they can't find skilled workers.

Instead of developing a policy that takes a balanced approach to deficit reduction and ultimately puts the country on the path to a stronger economy and lower unemployment, Congress' inaction left us with a policy that will put millions out of work, including the very people who are there to help the jobless get back into the workforce. This is policy-making at its worst.

When I learned about the people in Washington state and Idaho who are now jobless as a result of the sequester, I thought of the little boy at the end of the School House Rock episode trying to bolster up the exhausted, flagging Bill who had been conceived of as a policy to help people, knocked around and reshaped by spirited debate in the House and Senate, and was now awaiting the president's signature. "It's not easy to become a law, is it?" says the boy. "No!" says Bill.

What my generation learned on Saturday mornings from the tenacious Bill is that lawmaking is a proactive, affirmative process that Congress undertakes to solve problems. What my son's generation (including the children whose parents will lose their jobs because of the sequester) have learned is that Congress does not make policy through a proactive, affirmative process, but instead by not acting at all. And that kind of policy-making only makes our problems worse.