SEQUESTER JESTERS WARN OF AIRPLANE TERRORISTS, PRISON RIOTS, COCAINE FLOODING STREETS...
Sequester: Democratic theory of the case
The public has largely tuned out the Democratsâ repeated warnings about mid-air plane crashes, troop deaths and mass illness from tainted meat if the sequester cuts stay in place.
But Democrats arenât dropping the threat of disaster, seizing now on the line they think can beat the Republicans: law and order.
Prison riots, cocaine flooding the streets, terrorists on board airplanes â even hurricanes and tornadoes left undetected by budget-slashed agencies â have moved front and center as Democrats try to get the public behind blaming the Republicans.
Spending cuts undermine the ability to âcatch the bad guys, whether itâs white-collar crime, like mortgage fraud, or street crime, or despicable things like trafficking women and children,â Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said in a recent floor speech.
The Maryland Democrat noted that the spending cuts hurt local law enforcement officials who rely on federal grants to help in staffing and equipment purchases. âItâs not the biggest thing in the federal budget but itâs the biggest thing to cops,â she said. âWhy? Because it buys bullet-proof vests.â
The whole thing leaves Democrats looking a little like theyâre rooting for bad newsâ though they insist that theyâre only saying what is likely to happen if the money isnât replenished.
âA significant event would certainly alter the mindset,â said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), of the public attitude toward sequester.
So to make their case, many of the warnings have taken on the air of emergency, particularly when it comes to public safety. Politically, it could be just as tough a sell as the tainted meat: There have been no reports of anyone purchasing bad products, so itâs hard to convince voters that thatâs an immediate and dangerous threat.
Polls meanwhile show roughly half of Americans say they canât make up their minds about sequestration because they donât know enough yet about the effects of the cuts.
âI really think this is a fascinating case of wait and see,â said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief.
So Democrats are hoping that warning about increased crime and other dangers will hit home.
Federal prison union officials pointed to past budget cuts and continued staffing shortages â and whatâs ahead from sequestration â after a federal prison inmate stabbed a guard to death last month in Canaan, Pa.
âIâm hopeful we see the signs before so we donât have a full blown riot or get somebody killed or have one of these prisons burn to the ground,â said Deshotel, who has worked for 27 years as a maintenance worker at the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, La.
Warnings are also growing that the spending cuts will open the floodgates for more illicit drugs reaching U.S. soil. At a hearing last week before the House Armed Services Committee, Southern Command chief Marine Gen. John Kelly said sequestration means he could end up without critical air and water surveillance to monitor for cocaine trafficking.
âIf I lose those assets, if they go to zero â and there are some that are predicting they will go to zero â then all of that cocaine, all of it, will get ashore, and more, I would predict, would get ashore and be on the streets of New York and Boston and Portland, Maine," Kelly said.
Public health experts have also issued their share of warnings tied to the spending cuts, from fewer nurses in hospitals and clinics to less money for the state and local laboratories that monitor for whooping cough outbreaks and bioterrorism attacks.
âTheyâre the ones that check out that unknown white powder that shows up and you donât know what it is,â Mary Selecky, secretary of Washington stateâs Department of Health, said last month during a hearing organized by House Democrats.
Air safety also remains a concern â both in keeping terrorists off airplanes and keeping watch on the skies.
The TSA â already known for its high employee turnover â is instituting a hiring freeze that will result in an additional 1,000 vacancies by Memorial Day and 2,600 openings by the start of the next fiscal year. And the FAA faces an April 7 deadline to close some of the nearly 150 control towers that made it onto its cut list.
âWeâre gambling the lives and safety of our citizens in doing this,â said Rep. Bill Enyart, a freshman Democrat whose Southern Illinois district has two airports on the FAA list for possible closure.
Weather and storm forecasting faces its own problems as the Commerce Department considers a two to three-year delay in launching its newest satellites for tracking severe events like hurricanes and tornadoes. Add that to an aging satellite system and spending cuts that slice into the number of flight hours for NOAA aircraft, and many worry that meteorologists wonât have the best data to share with their audience.
âThink about the next community that gets hit with a super storm like Sandy,â said Marion Blakey, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Forest fires also will be a high-profile threat as the fire season begins this spring. Already, the country is coming off one of the worst years on record in 2012, with the third-highest number of acres burned in U.S. history.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said in an interview that federal firefighting efforts will be under deep stress later this year because of sequestration.
Preparations take place all year, but the $1 billion budget will be hit immediately. And with 1,000 fewer seasonal employees on the job because of the spending cuts, Jarvis said he won't have the capacity to move firefighters into position and keep them there for "sustained attacks."
It's just that kind of talk, though, that has drawn criticism from Republicans who say too much is being made out of spending cuts that Obama signed into law in 2011. âThey need to be very careful on the messaging,â said former GOP Hill leadership staffer John Feehery.
Conservatives also note the private sector and many state and local governments have already had to absorb spending cuts during the recent recession; now itâs only right for federal funding to dry up too.
âWhatâs unthinkable and horrible is if we donât address our spending problem and we actually have a debt crisis,â said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Added Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), âAnd thatâs not a hypothetical."
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.
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