MARTIN SCHRAM: Sequester fears have taken toll on jobs
Saboteurs struck with plenty of warning throughout 2012, crippling America’s already-weak jobs recovery — yet virtually unseen and unreported by our democracy’s news-media watchdogs.
The sabotage apparently shattered hopes of hundreds of thousands of job-seeking Americans by freezing and sometimes canceling job creation in the government and private sectors since the start of 2012. But it wasn’t the work of al-Qaida terrorists or cyber-enemy agents half a world away.
It was an inside job. The perps are well-known: President Barack Obama, his White House staff and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. They set in motion a cause-and-effect sabotage that was entirely predictable.
It began when their oxymoronically named Budget Control Act of 2011 created the so-called “sequester” — spending cuts so drastic they’d be considered horrific and thus would never happen.
Here’s what actually happened after that: The bipartisan Obama-Republican sequester announcement unintentionally but predictably triggered a Sequester Shockwave that became a coast-to-coast tsunami, freezing job hiring ever since.
Federal agencies, uncertain they’d get their already-budgeted project funding, instituted hiring freezes — just in case the sequester hit. That spread nationwide, first to the government’s largest private contractors, then to smaller subcontractors, states and local governments and their contractors and subcontractors.
Since the Sequester Shockwave was so predictable, you’d think it should have been easily detectable here at the governance intersection of the news media, policy and politics.
But its existence and impact went virtually undetected — or, at least, unreported by my media colleagues. Yet, economists and think-tank experts I’ve talked with all agreed with my account of what transpired. Many said they knew anecdotally of examples of agencies and contractors that froze hiring last year because of fears about a pending sequester.
No government agency or think tank or news organization to date has produced a report totaling how many jobs were frozen or positions canceled because of the sequester threat. The toll isn’t easy to quantify, but it can and should be measured.
The effort had to start with journalists or analysts thinking about what was really happening — then gathering the numbers to prove it. It required going agency by agency, major contractor by major contractor, to collect numbers of jobs that were frozen or canceled.
Because it’s a big task to gather numbers of jobs for which hiring was delayed or scrapped because officials feared a pending sequester, the largest news organizations are theoretically best positioned to get the story. Think of the often-underused potential of The Associated Press or Reuters, wire services with journalists nationwide. Or The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.
In contrast, it is much easier to get good estimates for anticipated job losses from a 2013 sequester. Stephen S. Fuller, a George Mason University economist, estimated that 2.14 million jobs would be lost nationwide. Defense cuts would constitute 325,693 jobs lost (48,174 of them civilian Defense Department employees, the rest mainly defense contractors). Nondefense cuts would cost 420,529 jobs (229,116 of them federal employees, most of the rest from contractors).
In an interview, Fuller said he was sure many jobs were already lost in 2012 because budgeters didn’t dare staff up for projects that were about to be scrapped. While he didn’t know of anyone who’d tried to gather the totals, he has come across anecdotal examples and is convinced the sequester’s impact has already been significant.
“The federal workforce is down about 43,000 jobs from a year ago,” said Fuller. “Agencies are leaving vacancies unfilled.”
Here’s one example: At the Government Accountability Office, U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro told his staff, in a recent memo first quoted in The Washington Post: “We have been allocating our funds since the start of the fiscal year in a very conservative manner, recognizing that sequestration might go into effect.” Dodaro added: “We project that we would no longer require furloughs at GAO this year to absorb the potential reduction associated with sequestration.”
If the comptroller general’s thinking was typical of the policies throughout the federal government — and many experts think it was — we begin to get just how much America’s jobs-weakened recovery may have already been unintentionally crippled by the shamefully shortsighted Obama-Republican sequester.
It’s a powerful, potentially prize-winning news story we have yet to see.