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February 2013

Sequester: The budget cuts that will negatively affect every American

Although the term "sequester" has been around since 1985, it became one of 2012's words of the year, and on March 1, it may go from an abstract term to a fiscal disaster for the United States. Essentially, sequestration is automatic, across the board spending cuts. In this case, the cuts would take place over the next nine years and will total $1.2 trillion, $85 billion of which would take effect immediately.  They affect discretionary spending (military pay, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, and veterans' benefits are exempt) and are divided between defense ($500 billion) and non-defense ($700 billion) spending.  Most people agrees that the cuts are draconian and will adversely affect nearly all Americans...so how did the government allow itself to be backed into this corner?

The Budget Control Act of 2011 established a bipartisan "super committee" of legislators charged with finding ways to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade.  As an incentive to reach an agreement, the BCA threatened sequestration should the committee failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction.  The committee did, in fact, fail to reach an agreement, which triggered the sequestration cuts to occur on January 2, 2013.  Only the last-minute New Year's Eve bargain struck by Congress kept the cuts from happening, by delaying them until March 1. Now, the only way to avoid sequestration is for Congress to vote by March 1 to undo the sequestration requirement in the BCA.  President Obama does not have the power to act alone. Unfortunately, John Boehner refused House Democrats' requests to cancel this week's Congressional recess and keep working towards a solution, leaving Congress only four days to try to avoid catastrophe once they return on February 25. 
So if March 1 comes and goes with no action, here's some of what Americans will notice almost immediately. TSA and air traffic layoffs will mean delays and longer airport lines for travelers.  FBI layoffs could affect law enforcement efforts nationwide.  70,000 children will be kicked out of Head Start programs, and 1.2 million children will see their school lose Federal funding. The Pentagon will furlough its civilian workforce of 800,000 people, by giving them one additional unpaid day per week.  125,000 low-income families will lose housing vouchers,and over 100,00 formerly homeless people would lose their housing. Unemployment checks would shrink by up to 9 percent.  Small business loan guarantees would be slashed by almost $1 billion. The list goes on, but you see the point.  These cuts will directly affect average Americans and those most in need of help.
 
But the effects of sequester go far beyond annoyances for travelers and financial trouble for individuals.  Goldman Sachs predicts that the cuts will lead to nearly a full percentage cut in GDP growth in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2013, throwing the United States back into recession.  Clearly these cuts are bad for the entire country.  So why on earth can't we avert the train wreck?
Republicans blame President Obama for the impending sequester, because he and the Democrats brought it up in the 2011 debt-ceiling talks.  However, it's not quite that simple.  Both parties wanted to use the sequester as leverage to force acceptance of their own budget cutting proposals. Neither party actually wants sequestration to take effect, but Congress has been unable  to reach a compromise replacement to sequestration, meaning that gridlock may well cause catastrophic cuts that no one wanted in the first place. The House recently passed two bills related to sequestration.  One shifted all of the cuts from defense to non-defense spending.  The other spelled out the specifics of those additional non-defense cuts. The Congress that passed the second bill has expired, so the bill is dead.   The Senate introduced a sequestration replacement bill last week, which would replace the sequestration cuts with a $110 billion combination of cuts and taxes - meaning it is unlikely to make it through the House. As it stands, Republicans refuse to  budge on any tax increases, and want to move all the sequester cuts out of the defense sector and into domestic programs that largely help the disadvantaged.  Democrats want a "balanced approach" that combines cuts - including entitlement reforms - with revenue.  And so we wait to see where the standoff takes us in nine days.  And what a shame it would be if partisan politics were to undo all of the economic progress the country has made since 2009. 

The best proposed gun laws that no one is talking about

In the national conversation (and occasionally shouting match) about gun regulation, there is much talk about the proposed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which, quite frankly, is unlikely to make it through Congress. More likely to be enacted is a federal law requiring universal background checks, which would close the "gun show loophole" and make it much more difficult for people who do not qualify to own a firearm to obtain one. But there's more that can be done. Existing laws that punish those who either buy guns illegally or engage in the firearms black market are weak, and cannot be enforced consistently due to lack of manpower. Even more startling, there is currently no federal gun trafficking law. Currently, in order to convict someone of illegal gun distribution, law enforcement must prove that the seller knew or should have known that the buyer was a felon.  The sale per se is NOT AGAINST FEDERAL LAW.  This makes it very difficult to convict those who sell guns illegally, which in turn makes it difficult to stem the flow of illegal guns from corrupt dealers to straw purchasers to criminals. This must change, and bills in both houses of Congress are showing promise towards that end.

Here are are three of the most common ways guns get into the hands of criminals. 1) Corrupt licensed gun dealers.  Nearly 60% of the guns used in crime are traced back to 1.2% of gun dealers who sell guns "off the books" to straw purchasers or criminals.  Which leads us to 2) Straw purchasers. These are people with clean records who buy guns legally, only to turn around and sell them to criminals or others who cannot buy guns because they would not pass the background check.  Nearly one-third of trafficking investigations involve straw purchasers.  3) Gun shows and private dealers.  A loophole in the federal law allows unlicensed sellers to sell guns at gun shows without performing background checks, meaning criminals can easily obtain a gun by using these methods to purchase. As mentioned earlier, closing the gun show loophole is widely considered to be the most likely federal legislation to become law, but bipartisan anti-trafficking bills introduced in the House and Senate are gaining support on both sides of the aisle.  

In mid February, Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013, which would empower local, state, and federal officials to investigate and prosecute gun traffickers and their networks. To help accomplish this, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) would be authorized to more frequently inspect and take inventory of gun dealers suspected of assisting traffickers.  It calls for hundreds of additional ATF officers and other staff for the severely underfunded bureau to be able to properly do its job. At the same time, a similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would also make gun trafficking a federal offense, and strengthen penalties on straw purchasers.  The measure would punish straw purchasers with up to 20 years in prison for providing false information when they buy guns. 
Opponents of new gun laws continue to bleat that there's no point in changing current regulations because "criminals will always get guns".  While it is true that stamping out all gun trafficking is unlikely, enacting federal laws with teeth will empower law enforcement to get many straw purchasers off the streets and will force many unscrupulous gun dealers to clean up their acts or face felony charges. As the saying goes, we cannot let perfect get in the way of the good. And laws that put more gun traffickers behind bars are most definitely good.