We’re only days away from sequestration, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts that were supposed to have been so awful, so distasteful to lawmakers and the president, that there was no chance we’d ever reach this point. And yet here we are.
Don’t get me wrong: I won’t defend a dysfunctional federal budget that is bleeding red ink as Congress and the administration avoid the tough choices over entitlement program reforms and fails to engage in a real debate over the size and scope of government.
But as other commentators and even the president have noted, sequestration takes a meat cleaver to core government services where a scalpel is what is needed.
Most of the press on sequestration has focused on its effect on the defense sector, and rightly so. After all, defending our country against foreign threats is constitutionally mandated, not some experimental program in an obscure government agency. The Department of Defense is preparing plans to furlough 800,000 civilian workers, which is a hit to our economy as we claw our way out of the Great Recession.
Sequestration takes a meat cleaver to core government services where a scalpel is what is needed.
- Nelson Balido
But less publicized has been sequestration’s effect on our border agencies: Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol. Those agencies’ roles in securing the homeland and in our country’s standing in the world of international commerce are so significant that they should not be put on the chopping block without serious deliberation. This is to say nothing of the other agencies on our borders, like USDA APHIS, which oversees produce imports.
Former Washington state Congressman Norm Dicks last fall recognized the negative effects of sequestration when he wrote in a letter to fellow members of Congress that the cuts will increase wait times at land ports of entry and airports and hurt aviation and maritime safety and security.
In a letter to constituents earlier this month, Texas border Rep. Henry Cuellar reported that 3,400 Border Patrol agents and 3,400 CBP officers would be facing cuts, placing our borders and ports in a precarious position.
CBP employees could get furloughed for 12 to 14 days, which could lead to increased waiting times for border crossings and cause flight delays. The bottom line: We’re facing a major slow down to legitimate trade and travel into the United States.
I wish I had better news, but sequestration looks like it’s going to happen, at least for a little while. There are only a few legislative days left before the March 1 deadline and Congress is just now returning from a week-long recess.
While the picture for our border agencies under sequestration initially seems bleak, there could be a silver lining.
Sen. John Cornyn has introduced legislation, S. 178, the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, which would create a needed and innovative mechanism for private sector or existing local public sector funds to be leveraged for border port infrastructure projects and to boost staffing beyond congressionally appropriated levels.
As I’ve written before, a new way of bringing border infrastructure and staff is needed, and sequestration makes that all the more apparent. The federal government simply doesn’t have the resources necessary to keep up with all of the growing demands placed on our borders due to rising trade flows and ongoing security concerns.
But local communities and the private sector are ready to act where the feds can’t or won’t. They just need the legislative authority to do so. Sen. Cornyn’s bill provides that authority. In this budget crunch, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration should be happy for the help.
Sequestration is a terrible way to conduct governmental budgeting. But we can turn a negative into a positive. Public-private partnerships make sense for the border.
Nelson Balido is the Principal at Balido and Associates, former president of the Border Trade Alliance, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido