You’d think with sequestration poised to kick in on Friday that voters would be giving their Congress members an earful. Surprisingly, not so much. But the budget battle is very much on the mind of one freshman from Southern California.
It’s a fairly quiet Wednesday morning in Democrat Mark Takano’s office. A group from UC Riverside dropped by to speak with his staff, and the phone rings from time to time. But few of the calls are about sequestration.
In the back office, Chay Halbert is the guy who goes through the mail. He says about half the correspondence is about sequestration, and opinions are pretty evenly split. Halbert notes there's "a decent amount that's probably broadly about just cutting government." But he's also getting mail from people concerned about program cuts. That split reflects the political makeup of Takano’s Riverside district: 42% Democratic, 35% Republican and 23% who decline to pick a party.
Richard McPike, Takano’s chief of staff, says party leaders have been getting most of the sequestration calls. But just in case a constituent calls Takano’s D.C. or district office with questions, he’s provided staff with a cheat sheet of sequestration answers.
"Somehow there hasn’t been a great deal of call for it," McPike says. He adds that the public may not see the sequester as a threat to the economy, but instead as "yet another internal fight in Congress that in the end is going to work out at the last minute and it’s not going to actually have any impact on people’s day to day lives."
But it’s front-and-center for his boss, the newly-elected Takano, who calls the sequestration threat "a big deal."
Takano has heard from March Air Force Base and museum directors and UC Riverside’s medical school about how cuts would affect them. What he hasn’t heard is what’s going on behind closed doors on Capitol Hill to reach a sequestration deal. He says "ordinary members like me are not privy to the discussions that are going on largely by a few people." Takano says he’s been piecing together what he knows from press reports.
And it’s not just the lack of information that ticks him off: it’s the lack of power to participate. He says all the big decisions are made by a very small group of individuals. The old so-called “regular order” of crafting legislation in committees with input from even the lowly freshmen is going by the wayside. "I don't know when it's going to dawn on the junior members of both parties that they're cut out of meaningful participation," Takano says.
In the end, Takano predicts, after the “drama” dies down, agreement on sequestration will happen the same way a deal was struck for aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy: with a bi-partisan coalition of mostly Democrats. He says anything Congress has done in the two months he's been on Capitol Hill has been with "the bulk of our caucus — 195 members — joined by about 40 -45 Republicans." Takano predicts "the same coalition's gonna come together."
The question is: when? Sequestration kicks in on Friday – not all at once but, as Takano says, “a death by a thousand cuts.” His staff predicts as soon as it becomes clear which programs will be cut, that’s when they’ll start getting an earful from constituents.