Finance Column » Your Money This Week » A quixotic quest for sequester answers

A quixotic quest for sequester answers

By Mark Hamrick ·
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Posted 1 pm ET

The impending package of mandatory spending cuts has been decried by President Barack Obama this week as "immediate, painful, arbitrary" and using "the meat-cleaver approach." But getting specific information from individual government departments portrayed as being affected has been difficult.

In several cases, representatives for federal departments or agencies stopped short of answering specific questions, instead referring to guidance provided in letters, congressional testimony or to the Office of Management and Budget.

Reporters who've covered the Obama administration over the years have grown accustomed to situations where the various departments avoid getting ahead of the White House itself.

So, here are some specific issues where we made inquiries and some examples of the responses.

Of the Social Security Administration, we asked for "any information you have on how Social Security recipients might be affected by the sequester?" A press officer referred us to the Office of Management and Budget press office. They did kindly provide a phone number.

The Department of Labor responded in robust fashion to several inquiries about the processing of unemployment claims and whether there could be delays. There, we were referred to a letter sent to a congressional committee, which stated: "Inadequate funding for state administration of (unemployment insurance) programs could lead to state layoffs, an increased number of improper payments, backlogs of appeals, and slower processing of claims." At least there was something we could sink our teeth into. We were also pointed to a statement from the White House noting that the long-term unemployed are at risk of losing an average of 11 percent from their weekly benefit checks.

At the Internal Revenue Service, not much luck was had on a question about processing of tax returns or requests for tax transcripts, useful in applying for mortgages. Similarly, we were pointed to a letter sent from the Treasury Department to the Senate Appropriations Committee dated Feb. 7. It said the budget cuts would "prevent millions of taxpayers from getting answers from IRS call centers and taxpayer assistance centers and would delay IRS responses to taxpayer letters." It goes on to say that the tax agency would "be forced to complete fewer tax return reviews and would experience a reduced capacity to detect and prevent fraud."

Even if the cuts are as painful and immediate as the president has said, one wonders whether the response on the part of the federal government could be any less vigorous.

Follow me on Twitter @hamrickisms.

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March 11, 2013 at 11:10 am

O.K. What is quixotic about that?