Enviros sound alarm on 'sequestration' as White House waits on agency planning

Five top environmental groups and many others active on science and technology issues yesterday joined an alliance of nearly 3,000 entities -- dubbing itself "the non-defense discretionary community" -- in urging Congress to stop $1.2 trillion in long-term slashes to their side of the federal ledger that are set to take effect come January.

The sweeping effort to neutralize what Washington knows as "sequestration," automatic across-the-board spending cuts added to last year's debt deal, comes as lawmakers remain in the early stages of reckoning with a fiscal dilemma not expected to end until the waning days of this winter's lame-duck session. The White House budget office is also in the early stages of its preparation, according to a spokeswoman who said that federal agencies are "not yet" participating in sequester plans but that "our staff is conducting the analysis needed to move forward if necessary."

In the meantime, green activists working to stave off further hits to U.S. EPA and Energy Department funding must keep one eye on the next fiscal year's appropriations cycle while hoping the sequester is tamed.

Yesterday's letter by interest groups in the health, education, environment, foreign relations and science fields -- endorsed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund -- signals an awareness that avoiding next year's projected $100 billion in cuts to non-military spending will take a strong show of support from lawmakers in both parties.

"[Non-defense discretionary] programs are not the reason behind our growing debt," the groups wrote. "In fact, even completely eliminating all NDD programs would still not balance the budget. Yet NDD programs have borne the brunt of deficit reduction efforts."

If the sequestration language in last year's Budget Control Act comes into force, the groups added, spending on non-defense discretionary programs including those at EPA, DOE and the Interior Department would fall to their lowest share of the U.S. economy in at least a half-century.

Until the White House Office of Management and Budget consults with agencies, it is likely to remain unclear how grievous a blow specific energy and environmental priorities would take from governmentwide cuts that exempt a handful of projects. The authors of yesterday's letter project an 8.4 percent hit to agency budgets.

"The truth is that no amount of planning or collection of reports will turn the sequester into anything other than the devastating cut in defense and domestic investments that it was meant to be," OMB spokesman Moira Mack said via email. "What's needed is action to avoid the sequester by Congress passing balanced deficit reduction that the President can sign into law, not searching for ways to cushion the blow on defense and non-defense programs."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) secured bipartisan support last month for an amendment to her chamber's farm bill that calls on the administration to perform a sequestration analysis, but that plan's future in the House is unknown (E&E Daily, June 21).

Reporter Emily Yehle contributed.

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