House Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of poorly preparing for the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts while at the same time scaring people about their potential impact.
"Agency after agency acts surprised that a law signed by the president 19 months ago actually meant what it said," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday.
Issa's committee conducted two hearings that touched on the impact of the budget cuts known as a "sequester" and the administration's preparation for them. Both hearings turned into forums for lawmakers in each party to blame the other side.
"When you cut $85 billion out of a budget over a course of seven months there are consequences — duhhh," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's senior Democrat. "They want people to think these are the choice of the administration. It isn't true."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, ripped the Homeland Security Department and its Transportation Safety Administration as among the worst offenders. While attacking the department's lack of planning for the spending cuts, he singled out Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's predictions of long waits at airport security lines as "her form of torture."
"We should have the secretary out there screening people," Mica said. "This is one of the most shameful things I've ever seen the administration do."
Rafael Borras, the department's undersecretary in charge of its budget, said there was no effort to scare people.
"There was an expectation that the sequester would not come to pass," Borras said. "We're doing everything we can to limit the impact."
During October's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Obama said sequestration cuts "will not happen," though his aides then tried to back off the remark.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Michael Young, the budget director for the Agriculture Department, that the USDA should have anticipated potential cuts. He also put up slides showing the department's budget over the last four years, noting it had been relatively flat.
"You've had 20 months to get ready for this," Jordan said. "August 2011. It seems to me you should be able to deal with this."
Jordan asked Young if anyone had directed him to make the cuts more painful. Young said the opposite was true, that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had instructed him to implement cuts in an "equitable manner and the least disruptive manner."
In February, Vilsack warned that budget cuts mandated by the sequester would force the USDA to furlough meat inspectors for up to 15 days. Because meatpacking plants require a federal inspector, his warning implied that it could cause an industry-wide slowdown.
Young told Jordan he did not yet know how long meat inspectors might be furloughed.
Democrats expressed frustration that the committee was asking questions about the impact of the sequester before agencies had fully grappled with it.
"Did we expect (the sequester) to kick in within 19 days?" said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "No!"