Sequester 2013

03.06.13

The Administration's Thin Complaints About the Sequester

Why do their claims keep falling apart under scrutiny?

Last Friday, President Obama claimed at a news conference that janitors at the Capitol would be suffering pay cuts as a result of the sequester.  

The Washington Post fact-checker column said no, this wasn't really true, so White House staffers rejoindered that even if they weren't taking actual pay cuts, per se, the janitors would be givin gup overtime pay that they really needed. Now, the Washington Post has investigated this claim as well, and found it underwhelming:

First of all, we should note that the White House’s story kept evolving as we reported last week’s column. It’s almost as if the president’s aides had to scramble to come up with reasons why the president could be correct, without actually knowing the facts.

So, when we forwarded to White House aides an AOC memo saying no furloughs were planned, White House aides latched onto a line about overtime reductions. For a couple of hours, we were also told that the janitors were on contract — and contracts were being curtailed. But that line of reasoning turned out to be incorrect. Then, after the statements from the Capitol were issued, there was no longer any response.

But, as seen by the quotes above, the talking point about “overtime” did not fade away.

AOC officials declined to discuss janitor compensation, but SAA officials were willing to share details. Given that the AOC and SAA janitors essentially work side by side, it is reasonable to assume that the pay statistics are roughly similar.
Bret H. Swanson, assistant sergeant at arms for operations and the manager of cleaning technicians, said 27 people are employed on the night cleaning shift and 16 people on a day shift; a majority of the cleaning takes place at night. There is a differential for the overnight shift, so the night janitors earn an average of $51,644 a year and the day janitors earn an average of $49,481.

And the overtime pay? It averaged $304 per employee in fiscal year 2012 and $388 per employee thus far in the current fiscal year. “Cleaning technicians do not earn what I would consider to be a great deal of overtime pay,” Swanson said.
In other words, overtime amounts to only pittance of the overall pay — about $6.50 a week on top of wages of $1,000 a week. That’s much different from Carney’s claim of having to “depend on that overtime to make ends meet.”

Now, I suppose the administration could argue that $300 is real money if you only make $50,000 a year.  And fair point--but I don't think that this qualifies as big enough that people are having "to figure out how to manage that".  

This is not the first time that the administration has been caught making grossly exaggerated claims about the impact of the sequester:

Duncan’s claim, on one of the Sunday morning shows, that teachers were already getting pink slips because of the looming sequester was actually the second time he had made this assertion.

“I was on a call yesterday, people are starting to give RIF [reduction in force] notes,” Duncan said in a meeting with reporters Feb. 21, three days before his appearance on CBS. “Schools are already starting to give teachers notices.”

Oddly, however, the Education Department for days was unable to cough up the name of a single school district where these notices had been delivered. Then, on Wednesday, Duncan appeared before the White House press corps and produced a name — Kanawha County in West Virginia — with a major league caveat. “Whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know,” he said.

Duncan’s spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said in an e-mail that “the information shared on the call was that just over 100 teachers and Head Start teachers had received layoff notices.”

Unlike the dubious figure that “40,000 teachers could lose their jobs” — more on that below — this at least was specific information. So let’s check it out.

The first thing that was striking about this figure of 100 teachers is that it was higher than the estimate in the state-by-state impact of the sequester released by the White House over the weekend. For the entire state of West Virginia, the White House said, “around 80 teacher and aide jobs [were] at risk.” And yet here, according to Duncan, was a single county with 100 potential layoffs. (Update: the fact sheet also mentioned a reduction in funds for another 40 “teachers, aides and staff” who help children with disabilities.)
But as we dug into it, the story got even odder. There were no news reports of pending layoffs. The school board was facing a $4.5 million shortfall, but just last week had landed a big victory worth as much as $3 million when the state Supreme Court ruled it no longer had to help fund the county’s library. The big issue at the moment was a push by the schools superintendent to crack down on teacher absenteeism — not the pending layoffs that the education secretary had announced on national television.

In fact, few in the county seemed to know what Duncan was talking about, including the education reporters who cover the school district for the Charleston, W.V., newspapers. “There’s very little sequestration-related panic, at least on the education side of things,” one reporter said.

Our colleague Lyndsey Layton helped unravel the mystery.

She discovered that these were not layoffs, but rather “transfer notices” sent to 104 Title I teachers for reasons unrelated to the sequestration cuts.

Moreover, these aren't matters of opinion where the administration can simply argue assumptions; these are easily checkable statements with hard numbers attached.  From this I infer that the administration is having a hard time finding concrete examples of bad things that the sequester is going to do.  Nor is that a huge surprise.  Whether you're for or against the sequester, we are talking about relatively small sums, in the scope of the federal deficit.  They're simply not going to show up in much measurable way as devastating hardship.