White House Press Briefing Warns of Travel Delays due to Sequestration
PRESS BRIEFING BY PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY AND SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. CARNEY: I just want to say that it is my pleasure, and clearly yours, to have with me today the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, who is here to speak with you about the impacts of sequester, if it comes to pass, on the American travel industry.
And as we’ve talked about a lot, the indiscriminate, deep cuts will affect everyone, really, in America, and industries. And Secretary LaHood is here to discuss one aspect of that with you and to take some questions. And afterwards, I’ll be here to take questions on other issues.
I just want to remind you that we’re on a slightly constrained time schedule. We have the President’s meeting with national governors — Democratic governors, and then also the pool spray with the Prime Minister of Japan.
With that, I turn it over to Secretary LaHood.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Sequester will be a very — will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation’s economy. At DOT, we will need to cut nearly a billion dollars, which will affect dozens of our programs. Over $600 million of these cuts will need to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that controls and manages our nation’s skies.
As a result of these cuts, the vast majority of FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year, and in some cases it could be as many as two days.
Today we are sharing more details with our unions and with industry so they can start planning for serious impacts of sequester. Here is what these automatic cuts are going to mean for the traveling public.
Obviously, as always, safety is our top priority, and we will never allow the amount of air travel we can handle safely to take off and land, which means travelers should expect delays. Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we have fewer controllers on staff. Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country.
Cuts to budgets mean preventative maintenance and quick repair of runway equipment might not be possible, which could lead to more delays. And once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights.
So we are beginning today discussions with our unions to likely close more than 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year. And we’re talking about places like Boca Raton, Florida; Joplin, Missouri; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and San Marcos, Texas. The list of the towers — the list of potential towers that are to be closed, or elimination of midnight shifts, is posted on our website as I’m speaking now. So you can see the entire list there.
We’re also beginning discussions with unions to eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country. The closures will impact services for commercial, general aviation, and military aircraft. This will delay travelers and delay the critical goods and services that communities across the country need.
These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences that will cost jobs and hurt our economy. The President has put forward a solution to avoid these cuts. And as a former member of Congress of 14 years, I urge my former colleagues to address this issue when they get back next Monday, and to work on a long-term, balanced solution to our deficit challenges.
And with that, I’ll be happy to answer some questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, these cuts and these cutbacks that you’re talking about, are these the type of things that the public will start seeing on March 2nd? Or is this going to be a longer rollout?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: We think the rollout will take from March 1st to April 1st, and they’ll begin to see the activity in the layoffs and the delays probably beginning around April 1st.
Q Are there any other ways to avoid the cuts other than those you have outlined? There are some Republicans who say you could mitigate these effects by doing other things in your budget system.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Look, the sequester doesn’t allow for moving money around. It just does not. And it’s very clear. And the idea that we can move money from one pot, say like AIP, which is the Airport Improvement fund — which in most places has a pretty good chunk of money — sequester doesn’t allow that.
Look, this is very painful for us because it involves our employees, but it’s going to be very painful for the flying public. As a former member of Congress, I heard complaints all the time from my constituents when their flights were delayed or when their flights were cancelled, and this is going to have an enormous impact.
Q Could you clarify why the flights will be delayed? Is it a matter of mileage between flights?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Because we’re going to reduce the number of controllers, which will reduce their ability to guide planes in and out of airports.
Q So more distance between planes — landing distance —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, it’s going to reduce the number of controllers, which will reduce their opportunity to guide the same number of planes that they would ordinarily do at full capacity.
Q How about TSA implications?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: TSA is under Homeland Security. We’re not — that’s a different lane.
Q Your total budget at DOT is, what, $70-some billion?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: $70 billion, in round numbers, yes — 55,000 employees.
Q So help the public understand — a billion dollars cut. You’ve got a big budget. Can’t you find some other way to cut that without telling air traffic controllers to stay home?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, we’re doing that. We’re looking at every contract, and we’re going — our lawyers are looking at every contract to see what penalties we would have to pay as we begin to cut or adjust contracts. We’re looking at everything possible; and everything possible that’s legal, we will do. But this has to be a part of it. DOT has 55,000 employees. The largest number of those employees are at the FAA, and the largest number of those employees are controllers and they’re all over the country. There has to be some impact in order to save a billion dollars. A billion dollars is a lot of money.
Q But let’s be clear — it’s less than 2 percent of your budget.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: It’s a lot of money, Jonathan. And where I come from, which is central Illinois, a billion dollars is a lot of money. And it’s very difficult when you have this kind of — the number of employees that we have guiding planes in and out of airports to do anything except look at everything, and that’s what we’ve done.
Q Are you just basically throwing out whatever sounds like the most severe consequence in order to ratchet up pressure? And are you having discussions with some of your former colleagues up on the Hill to warn them of what’s coming?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: The answer is, yes, we are having discussions with members of Congress. We have briefed staff people on the respective committees — commerce committee in the Senate; T&I committee in the House. And they know the impact and they know why we’re doing this. They know a lot about these numbers we’re dealing with because we work with them on a regular basis. And the idea that we’re just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense. We are required to cut a billion dollars, and if more than half of our employees are at the FAA, the FAA — there has to be some impact. That’s the reason we’re announcing what we’re announcing.
Q Mr. Secretary, what sort of impact will these delays have on the airline industries and their financials, specifically? Do you have any forecast for what that will do?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, we’re talking to the airline industry today — A4A, which represents all of the airlines, we’re talking to them. We’ll be probably talking to individual airlines. We’re making this announcement today, and obviously we have to work through with them what impact this will have. But there’s no question they’re going to have to restrict some of the flights that they currently — are on their books to fly in the next — within the next 30 days.
Q Will they be required to compensate passengers for delays?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: You’ll have to talk to them about that.
Q I mean, isn’t that part of U.S. law that they have to do that? Where does this figure into that?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: You’ll have to talk to the airlines about that.
Q Just to be clear, have the airlines specifically said they will definitely have to choose —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: You know, we just started to talk to the airlines today. They’re hearing about this. We’re on the phone — our folks are on the phone with them right now. We’re on the phone with the airlines, we’re on the phone with our unions. We’re sending an email to all of our employees so everybody gets the same information at the same time.
Q So they have said it’s a possibility this is one of the things that —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, we believe that it’s not possible to continue the same schedules with less people.
Q And then on the issue of safety, how can you guarantee that safety standards will be met if you’re scaling back?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Because that’s what we’re in the business of. That’s what we do every day. Our people get up every day and think about safety, and we think about it in a way that maybe nobody else thinks about it — certainly common, ordinary citizens. I’ve said many, many times people — thousands of people today boarded planes, buses, got in their cars, and the thing they didn’t think about was safety. We do.
And we’re not — we will never take a back seat when it comes to safety. We just absolutely will not. And that’s the reason, back to Jonathan’s question, we’re looking at everything. We’re not just looking at furlough days. We’re looking at every contract. Our lawyers are looking at every contract to see what impact it has for us to try and find some savings in those areas.
Q Mr. Secretary, why is the alarm being raised now? Why not three, four months ago? Why now?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Because we’re within 30 days of sequester. I mean, sequester really begins March 1st, but we have a 30-day window here to prepare people. And we’ve been working with our colleagues here at the White House and OMB for a number of months on what impact this is going to have. And now is the time to do it.
Q Mr. Secretary —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Jim.
Q Yesterday, at the Airlines for America briefing, the airline lobby actually said that there would be no effect, that they suspected there would be no significant impact on the air travel system. Where is the disconnect between what you’re saying and what the airlines are saying?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I don’t think they have the information we’re presenting to them today. I don’t know what they used for that, Jim. But it’s — I think when they see the kind of cutbacks that are going to be made at some of these towers, they’re going to have no choice but to really look at the fact that there are going to be delays, and there are going to have to be some cutbacks on some of these flights.
Q Let me follow up on safety, if I could. What is going to be the effect on FAA inspectors? Are you also going to furlough some of them that are doing the — who are reviewing the safety of these planes?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Everything will be impacted in terms of the controllers and contracts. When it comes to our safety programs, there will be no compromise.
And those are things that we’re looking at, but we want to make sure that those people that are, for example, doing the work on the 787, doing the work on inspecting planes, no compromise when it comes to safety.
Q Mr. Secretary — thank you, sir. Mr. Secretary, as far as international carriers are concerned, are you in touch with international carriers, if international passengers are going to be affected from this? Because whatever happens in Washington, whole world is affected, people around the globe.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Yes, we’ll be in touch with all of the airlines.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said you’ve been talking with the unions about this. Are they going along wholeheartedly with your proposal? Or are they —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: We just started our talks today. Our FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, has been talking to Paul Rinaldi, the head of the controllers union. But the call today will be with the entire leadership of the controller’s union.
Q Are you concerned that they could object to the kinds of cuts you are proposing?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, we’ll find out. I mean, look, the discussions are beginning now. I’m sure that they’ve never been bashful about expressing their point of view.
Q Mr. Secretary, does this in any way affect Amtrak all that much?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: No, sir.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: No, sir, it does not.
Q Mr. Secretary, we went through this rodeo once before two months ago, the last time we came to the sequester deadline. Did any of these conversations happen at the end of December last year with the unions and with the airlines?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Of course. When we thought that there was going to be a sequester, of course we — we’re in continual discussions with these folks. We have a great partnership with them. And the answer is yes, of course.
Q Mr. Secretary, if the sequester goes through and these cuts kick in, how quickly can you turn off the switch and put things back to normal?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Look, all of our planning and all of our discussions and all of our work are about getting to where we’re at today, with this announcement, with our discussions, and we’ll see where it takes us. And planning for a restart is — we haven’t had a lot of discussion about that at this point.
Q Is there any requirement under the sequester that once it kicks in it has to last three months or four months or five months?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: No, not that I know of.
Q What are you telling Republicans in Congress, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: That this is going to have a huge impact on their constituents. Look, and I can tell you —
Q When you break it down politically for them, what are you saying?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: That your phones are going to start ringing off the hook when these people are delayed at airports, and their flights are delayed 90 minutes, or their flights are cancelled, or their air tower is closed.
Look, you all know I was in Congress 14 years. I represented central Illinois, which included Peoria and Springfield, both with air towers. Any time there was even a threat of a closing of an air tower in Peoria/Springfield, our phones started ringing off the hook from controllers, but also from people who use the airport.
So it’s not only the impact on the passengers, it’s the impact that it has on airports, control towers, people who work there, airports. And their phones are going to start ringing. Why does this have to happen? Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do. If we can’t get our hamburger within five minutes — if we can’t get on the plane within 30, 40, 50 minutes after going through, you know what happens. They start calling their member of Congress.
Q But to Jonathan’s question, you’re going to scrub everything to make sure the priority is safety and usability, right?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Number one is safety. Always has been, always will be. We never take a back seat when it comes to safety. We will never compromise safety — ever. Never have and never will.
Q Do you agree with the administration’s position that this is a manufactured crisis, one manufactured by your former House colleagues?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I think Republicans need to step up here. I served for 14 years. During those 14 years, I was — 12 of those years I was in the majority party. Speaker Gingrich was the Speaker. He worked with then-President Bill Clinton. We balanced the budget five of those fourteen years. It meant that there was compromise. This requires compromise. This requires Republicans stepping forward with some ideas about how to keep essential services of government running at the level that people have been accustomed to. This is not rocket science. This is people coming together the way that other Congresses have done to solve big issues.
I suggest that my former colleagues on the Republican side go see the movie “Lincoln,” because in the movie “Lincoln,” it shows how hard it was back then to get things done. But what Lincoln did is he gathered people around him the way that I believe President Obama is doing by calling Republicans, talking to them, trying to work with them. And when that happens, big things get solved. The fiscal cliff got solved because people started talking to one another. So this can happen again.
Q Yes, have your phones been ringing from members of the public? And if so, what are they saying?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I’m sorry have —
Q Have your phones been ringing from members of the public yet?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: No, but look, this is the announcement today. We’ve been doing a lot of this background work, and so I have no doubt my phones will ring from members of Congress — why is my control tower being closed?
Q Mr. Secretary, where were these warnings two weeks ago, a week ago? I mean, speaking of movie references, this might be called an acting performance, because you are — you’re going to be scaring the public today. This is going to be scaring the public about their travel plans.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, we’ll see what the reaction of the public is. What I’m trying to do is to wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side to the idea that they need to come to the table, offer a proposal so that we don’t have to have this kind of calamity in the air service in America.
And we want to get it right, so we’ve spent the last few weeks putting all of this information together so we do have it right. So that we are not just taking a meat axe to one part of FAA, that we’re looking at the full breadth of the entire agency.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said that you want these guys to wake up. Have you awakened them by using a phone? Have you called any Republicans recently?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Yes, I just said I’ve been talking to Republicans and their staff on the T&I committee and on the Senate Commerce —
Q Can you tell us who you spoke with and what the nature of those interactions were? And what are they saying to you in terms of their own leadership?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I doubt if you really want a list of the members of Congress I’ve been talking to, okay? But take —
Q How many? Enumerate.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: A half a dozen.
Q And what are they telling you about what they think about their own leadership?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I didn’t talk to them about their leadership. I talked to them about the impact on air travel and air traffic control towers.
Q What was their reaction?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: It’s not good. They get it.
In the back.
Q The Republicans would say — and they have been saying this — that the Democrats in the Senate should act on two bills that they passed in the summertime. Why aren’t you calling the Democrats in the Senate and saying, pick up — act on the Republican bills and avoid sequester that way? What’s wrong with that approach?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I’ve been working on trying to figure out how we’re going to get to a billion dollars.
Q Mr. Secretary, in all the discussion about the sequester, you’re the first Cabinet Secretary that’s been brought into a White House briefing to talk about this for us recently. So, I mean, do you and the President think that the impatience of the American people at the airports is the strongest leverage point to press with the Republicans?
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I would describe my presence here with one word: Republican. They’re hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party.
Look, this is a big deal. It’s a big deal because a lot of people — common, ordinary citizens fly. A lot of people use airports. And this is going to have a real impact.
Q The Department of Transportation is taking part of this hundred-city tour called the Connecting Your Community to talk about proposals in the President’s State of the Union address. Will you end your participation in that tour as a way to cut some savings right now? Sending DOT employees out to —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: Well, I was supposed to be in Orlando and South Carolina today, so I guess I have ended it.
Q Is it not going to happen? Is there going to be a bridge — Tom Coburn is asking for an explanation of why it’s being held in light of the sequester potential? The hundred-city tour.
SECRETARY LAHOOD: You’ll have to ask Jay about that.
MR. CARNEY: I’ll take that one.
Q Mr. Secretary, let’s say — I’m finally traveling to India in the next two weeks, should I be worried? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY LAHOOD: You’re going to be delayed. (Laughter.)
Yes, ma’am. Last one.
Q You said you’re telling Republicans to come to the table. Are you telling them to raise taxes? I mean, are you telling them to —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: No, I’m telling them to come to the table and start talking to Democrats about how we solve this. They’ll figure out the solution, just like they figured out the solution on the fiscal cliff.
Q So you’re not telling them that they shouldn’t —
SECRETARY LAHOOD: I have not told them the specifics about how to solve it. Come together, talk to one another. Figure it out. That’s the way we’ve always done things around here.
Have a great weekend, everybody.
MR. CARNEY: I want to thank Secretary LaHood with whom it is always a pleasure to share this podium. (Laughter.) No, I mean that seriously. And he’ll be missed by me and everyone else here at the White House.
If I could just — in answer to the question in the back, we’ll just go straight to the issue here. The way to avert sequester is to pass a bill that can be agreed to by Democrats and Republicans that either buys down the sequester or, when there was time to do this, that achieves the $4-trillion goal by reducing the deficit further along the lines of the big deal that President Obama and Speaker Boehner were talking about during the fiscal cliff negotiations. There’s the offer the President made is still on the table — spending cuts, entitlement savings, and revenues through tax reform.
In this process, if you accept the premise that for Democrats it is hard to go along with spending cuts — or harder to go along with spending cuts and hard to go along with entitlement savings, that they might prefer to do revenues over that. So the tough sell to Democrats is to go along with spending cuts and entitlement savings, and that the tough sell, as we all know, because we hear it all the time, for Republicans is to go along with revenue increases; and that leadership is represented in part, certainly in the discourse here in Washington, by a willingness by the leaders of one party to convince their members to go along with tough choices.
And I would then ask you to look at the proposals that we put up, that I had on the screen here yesterday, the offer that we made to Speaker Boehner, the President’s budget, the President’s submission to the super committee, which was specifically designed to eliminate the sequester. And in every single one, he has put forward balance. He has put forward spending cuts and savings from entitlement reforms. And as all of you know who have covered Washington, some of that savings is a hard sell to Democrats. But this President has been leading on the issue.
Unfortunately, we have not seen any commensurate action by Republican leaders. Their answer always is: spending cuts only, no revenues, entitlement savings only, no revenues, burden borne by seniors or FAA employees or border security guards or children with disabilities, but not the wealthiest, not corporations who enjoy tax breaks, not oil and gas companies who get subsidies. That is always their answer.
So you can’t — it is hard to find a compromise solution with a side that says the only available solution from our view is if you come 100 percent to us. And that, unfortunately, has been the narrative that you have been dealing with — and certainly we have been dealing with — now for — really since the beginning of 2011.
The President supports the proposals that the Senate Democrats have put forward and the House Democrats have put forward that would buy down the sequester and give Congress time to work on a bigger deal to reach that $4-trillion target in deficit reduction. The President has signed into law, as you know, already $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction — two-thirds of which is comprised of spending cuts and savings from entitlements. So only a third of that has been from revenues.
We want balance. The American public wants balance. There was, I think, a public poll that was published in USA Today — I don’t see a representative from that fine newspaper here today — but yesterday that I think cited 76 percent of the American people support a balanced approach to this challenge. Something like 19 percent supported a “my way or the highway” spending cuts-only approach.
Q Since we’re a week away from the deadline, is it the White House expectation at this point that the sequester will take effect next Friday?
MR. CARNEY: We remain hopeful that Congress will act, that the proposals Democrats have been working on in both Houses will be taken up and passed, that Republicans will — having heard some of the information about what the impacts will be on real people out there, and the macro impact on the economy — will come to the conclusion that it is better simply to do what they did in December and allow this manufactured deadline to be postponed so that they can get back to the work of doing what Secretary LaHood was just talking about, which is coming together and finding a reasonable, bipartisan compromise, a balanced compromise, to complete this job of achieving $4 trillion-plus in deficit reduction over 10 years.
Q But what are the realistic prospects of that happening over the next week?
MR. CARNEY: I’ve never done very well in Vegas or Atlantic City, so I’m not going to make odds for you. We obviously are discouraged by the line that Republican leaders have taken, which is that the book is closed on revenue, despite the 76 percent of the American people who believe that balance is the right approach; that the only way to do this is the way they propose, which is not supported, obviously, in the Senate and not supported by the American people, and not supported by the President.
But we remain hopeful, and we will continue to engage with Congress. We will continue to make our case around the country about why we need to avoid the sequester, what the damage of that would be to the economy and to average folks out there who — some of whom are working today but will not be working 30 days from now if the sequester takes effect.
This is incredibly important. It’s about the broader enterprise here that everyone is engaged in — those who are elected and sent to Washington — and that is taking steps to try to improve our economy, help it grow, and help the middle class. This does not help the middle class. It does the opposite. And it’s bad policy, by design, so we should not let it take place.
Q Jay, could you tell us about what the President’s message was to the Democratic governors this morning about this subject?
MR. CARNEY: I confess I was in other meetings so I wasn’t present. I know that the President intended to speak with governors about the issues that are of concern to them. And I think what we all know about governors is that the issues that are of concern to them tend to be issues that aren’t broken down by party affiliation. And that’s the need for actions to be taken that help job creation, the need for investments in infrastructure; issues involving implementation of the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure, immigration reform — many of the issues that we are discussing here in Washington. But that’s not a readout, that’s just my understanding of what those conversations were likely to look like.
Q Is he intending to talk to them about encouraging them to go public with their concerns about the real-world impact of this in their states?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t think you get elected governor in any state in this country if you are not out there talking about the issues that affect your constituents. And I don’t — so I guess my answer to that is I don’t think he would have to tell governors of either party to be concerned about it or to communicate with their constituents about it. I expect that that’s going to happen across the country. And Democrats and Republicans are going to have to explain what implementation of the sequester will mean in terms of job loss, furloughs, reduced economic growth, closure of airport towers, or reduced hours for air traffic controllers at their airport. These are just a handful of the impacts that we would see if the sequester goes into effect.
Q Jay, the Secretary said sequester doesn’t allow for moving money around. Is that completely true? Does OMB have any discretion? Do the agencies have any discretion?
MR. CARNEY: I can’t remember if you were in the chair when I had Danny Werfel here to talk about this from OMB about how the law dictates what must happen in terms of the cuts. And I think Secretary LaHood reflected the — in layman’s terms — the facts, which is there is very little flexibility in terms of how to make those cuts happen.
Within that limited flexibility, Secretary LaHood made clear that he will — he and I’m sure other Secretaries are doing this — are doing everything they can to deal with these cuts and absorb them, prepare for them in a way that allows them to achieve their mission. And in the case of the Department of Transportation and the FAA, top priority is safety.
So as he said at the top, that would mean — because the FAA is such a big chunk of the Department of Transportation and unavoidably would be affected by furloughs — that you would have only the number of takeoffs and landings that the system could bear with a reduced staff. And that means — and still maintain the levels of safety that the FAA does. So that means reducing the number of flights, or delaying flights, with all that means for travelers.
Q And I wasn’t just referring to the transportation, but broadly, the answer is that the flexibility is very limited?
MR. CARNEY: That’s correct. And again, I would point you to the briefing that was done I believe last week in which Danny Werfel addressed this.
Q And just one follow-up. Generally, can you give us any sort of a hint about what other plans you guys have for next week? We know the President is traveling on Tuesday, but otherwise how you intend to keep pushing this message up until the Friday deadline?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have any other events or travel to announce. He will be going to Newport News, Virginia next week, as you know, to highlight the negative consequences of sequester and how they will be felt in that town, in that state.
The fact is we have a full agenda, but it is certainly going to be the case next week that sequester and the impending deadline will I think consume a lot of people’s attention here — both on this side of the podium and your side. And I think that our activities will include engaging, as they have in the past, engaging with Congress, hoping that we can find resolution here, hoping we can find an agreement. We’re not — the smaller agreement, just as was the case at the end of last year, is not asking of either side, because of its size, to make all of the hard decisions.
A lot of that work would still be saved for completing the job of hitting the $4 trillion-plus target a broader deficit-reduction deal. But as the Senate proposal shows and other proposals have shown, you can do this as they did in December, in a way that is balanced but should not be that difficult.
So we’re hoping — we remain hopeful that that will happen.
Q One of the interesting things that you’re seeing in some of these polls — and I know you mentioned some polling in your conversation with Brendan Buck, with the Speaker’s office last night —
MR. CARNEY: Good friend, Brendan. (Laughter.)
Q — is that there’s a large number —
MR. CARNEY: I mean that seriously.
Q There’s a large percentage of Americans who are unaware of what’s going to happen with this sequester, don’t even know what the sequester is, whether it should be called sequestration or sequester.
MR. CARNEY: We’re all still struggling with that one, I think.
Q Why are these warnings, like Secretary LaHood’s warnings, coming so late in the game? I mean we’re hearing about FAA delays one week before the —
MR. CARNEY: I refrained from interjecting because he’s a Cabinet Secretary, but I wanted to say — I wanted to leap to the podium and point that we put out, as mandated by law, a report on the implementation of sequester, I believe last September, because the deadline at that time was January 1st. And the fact is we have been talking about this and answering question, and making clear that the planning was in effect in the lead-up to the potential deadline at the end of last year.
And it was only — remember, we’re now, what, seven weeks since the 1st of the year, so it was only — it hadn’t been that long since the last deadline passed, but it was pushed back by the fiscal cliff deal. There was a lot of concern, obviously, late last year; in fact, a great deal of concern on the part of Republicans about the potential for sequester taking effect. They seem to have had a change of heart about that. But at the time there was great concern expressed by Republicans about that.
What was also the case is we were engaged — because of the other deadlines, the fiscal cliff, the fact that there was the potential that taxes would go up on middle-class Americans around the country — we were in engaged in negotiations with the Speaker of the House in an effort to try to achieve a bigger deal that would have both dealt with averting those tax hikes and further deficit reduction. Unfortunately, the Speaker walked away from that deal.
But the environment was different. Now we’re not seeing any flexibility from — it was different then than it is now. We’re not seeing much interest at this point from Republican leaders in even engaging in a discussion about how we can move forward with a balanced package. The line they keep drawing in the sand is, I don’t care what the public says, I don’t care who is hurt by it; our position — the Republican position — is cuts only, burden borne only by senior citizens, children with disabilities.
Q Is that a fair read of the substance of the conversations that went on between the President and Republican leaders?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to read out those conversations. And I think you’ve seen that the leaders themselves who have had those conversations with the President aren’t reading them out.
We continue to, as a broad matter — not specific to any one conversation — to make the case that compromise is available here; that compromise is represented by taking a balanced approach. I mean, again, it really is important to me — you can’t — the sort of pox on both their houses, false equivalence business that a lot of — some commentators engage in where everybody is to blame equally here for how we got to this problem because nobody will compromise, but it is just factually incorrect.
Again, going back to that basic premise that it’s harder for Democrats to go along with spending cuts and entitlement savings and harder for Republicans to go with revenue increases — so who has made the hard choices here? Who has made the tough proposals?
Q But to that point, Democrats like to say Republicans only control one-half of one-third of government. So shouldn’t they just have one-half of one-third of the blame?
MR. CARNEY: The fact of the matter is that we can’t get anything done without a bill passing the House of Representatives, and the Democratic Party and the President of the United States do not control the House of Representatives.
We are confident that there is in excess of a majority in the Senate that would support the balanced approach that the President has put forward, that the Senate Democrats have put forward. And we know, because your polling outfits tell the public this, that the public supports the balanced approach that the President has put forward. We also know it’s the best economic policy.
I was asked yesterday, I think, why can’t — doesn’t the President have some power to just make the sequester go away on his own? And, of course, he would enjoy having that power, but the law of the land does not give it to him.
Q Jay, even before we heard from Secretary LaHood, we’ve heard some dire warnings coming from the administration. Just to tick through a few, we’ve heard about more wildfires, more workplace deaths, higher risk of terrorism, criminals set free. Is there any exaggeration going on here?
MR. CARNEY: I think all of those things come from reduced numbers of people fighting fires, reduced numbers of people doing inspections of our food, reduced numbers of people engaging in air traffic control. I mean, those are just the facts, Jon.
Q No other way to squeeze 3 percent out of the federal budget?
MR. CARNEY: I think we had this colloquy yesterday. The fact of the matter is that you are talking about a 13 percent cut in our defense budget and 9 percent cut in our nondefense discretionary budget this year. And there is no way to do that, based on the way the law is written, without having hugely negative impacts on individuals and families. Furloughs would have to happen. Layoffs would have to happen. That is a fact.
And it’s not just us saying this. You don’t believe us, maybe you believe the CBO. Maybe you believe Macroeconomics Advisers or Moody’s. They have projected fully a half a percentage point reduction in GDP growth. And you know, because you cover this stuff, what that means economically. They have projected three-quarters of a million people will lose their jobs if the sequester takes effect and stays in effect.
Those are real-world consequences. These are real people. It’s not political leverage. It’s a fact. And we’re out there making clear that this is an important issue to deal with because of the real-world implications. The reason why the President continues to put forward and we made clear again on paper what we have been making clear all along, the President’s very reasonable offer remains on the table because he wants to avoid this.
Let’s just, again, go back to my basic point. It is not an easy sell to Democrats to go along as part of a big deal with superlative CPI. It is not an easy argument necessarily to get Democrats to go along with the reforms that the President has put in place in his proposal on entitlement reforms or with the spending cuts. It was not easy to sign into law $1.1 trillion in spending cuts. But he has done it, and Democrats have done it. And what we haven’t seen from Republicans is anything equivalent. And we’re just looking for a negotiating partner here. We’re just looking for somebody to meet us halfway.
Q Is this hundred-city tour going to be cancelled?
MR. CARNEY: You know what, I saw somebody — a reporter sent me this right before I came out here. I haven’t had a chance to ask anybody about it. But we’ll get back to you on it.
Q But this would be the kind of thing, right? I mean, you wouldn’t — specific Cabinet members all around the country —
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate that a Republican member has sent this around. I just don’t have an answer for it, but I’ll look into it.
Q But the broader question, Jay, would be to prioritize those things out of a sequester matrix, wouldn’t it? For this President to say, we can do without those things?
MR. CARNEY: — the sequester matrix, so I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds cool.
Q You understand what I’m saying. The President would prioritize these things out of the budget and not label them a priority against meat and poultry inspections, against FAA air traffic controllers, against wildfire fighters. I mean, wouldn’t he?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would urge you to look at the law and look at what —
Q I have.
MR. CARNEY: — the flexibility there is in the law, and it is extremely limited. And even if it weren’t —
Q Yes, it’s extremely limited, but the dollars and cents can be applied at agency discretion. If there’s a hundred-city tour, it can be decided —
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the talking point based on a letter that a Republican just sent moments ago. I haven’t seen it. I don’t have an answer for it at this time, but I will look into it. You can find an individual thing and say that this could be cut — and maybe it should be, whatever it is — but it represents a drop in the bucket to an $85 billion cut, a 13 percent cut to our defense budget, and a 9 percent cut to our nondefense discretionary budget this year, this fiscal year. This is not spread out over 10 years.
Q I understand that.
MR. CARNEY: This is not something you can backload. This happens now and it affects real people. And, again, don’t take our word for it. Look at what Republicans used to say about it until I guess some consultant told them to say something else. Look at what CBO and Macroeconomics Advisers and Moody’s have been saying. These are just the facts of the matter.
One of the reasons why we’re here, one of the reasons why we had the fiscal cliff fight and why we’re discussing this is that everybody recognizes that these kind of indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts aren’t good for the economy, aren’t good for our defense, and they’re not the way to sensibly reduce our deficit.
Q I understand that. I’m just saying this President, as all Presidents before him, took pride in prioritizing. And I’m just asking, as a priority for the President, the signal to the agencies would be prioritize your core functions —
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely.
Q — over non-essential functions like this or something like it.
MR. CARNEY: Again, I appreciate on the item that you mentioned and I’m sure that somebody will get back to you with an answer on that.
The fact of the matter is you just had a Cabinet Secretary with enormous responsibility for an agency that affects everybody who travels in our skies tell you exactly that — that that’s what he is doing on the instructions of the President. Within the law, he’s looking at every available mechanism to lessen the impact of these cuts on the core mission of the Department of Transportation, the core mission of FAA. So I think the answer is to you, yes.
Q This may be self-evident, but is it your position from the podium today to instruct or ask the Senate Democratic leadership to with all due speed next week pass their alternative to the sequester and send it to the House?
MR. CARNEY: We would absolutely like to see the Senate take up and pass legislation that would avert the sequester in a balanced way, and the House to do that as well, yes.
Q And within that context, it’s $85 billion over the next nine months remaining in our fiscal year. Does the deal that the White House envisions have to be $85 billion, or would it be smaller than that?
MR. CARNEY: The buy-down —
Q Would be $85 billion —
MR. CARNEY: The buy-down could be — look, it was two months on January 1st, December 31st — it could be that. But the bill that has been put forward by Democrats in the Senate I believe takes it to the end of the year. The sequester, as you know, the $1.2 trillion is stretched over 10, yes.
Q Right, but that’s over the next — all those fiscal years. But just $85 billion is the contours of what you want, and you roughly have — portion that half revenue and half spending cuts. So the federal budget could live with —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would point — whatever the ratio is in the bill, I would point you to the President’s overall approach to this, which has been two dollars in spending cuts to one in revenue.
Q Jay, we’ve heard over the last couple of years from Secretary Geithner, from Lael Brainard, from Mike Froman, their concerns that countries in the eurozone were cutting too much, too quickly. To what extent does the President’s experience in watching that inform his philosophy going into these negotiations?
MR. CARNEY: Obviously, every country has dealt with the global economic crisis that befell us in 2007, 2008 in different ways. We believe, and the President believes, that the approach that was taken here in Washington was the right one, and that as a result — even though we suffered a calamitous recession, the worst of our lifetimes that took millions and millions of jobs — we have been able through hard work and tough decisions, and the grit and determination of the American people, to come to a position where the economy has been growing steadily. And it has been creating jobs — over 6 million private-sector jobs. That work is not done.
So the focus that the President has had was one that prioritized in the beginning the need to stop the bleeding, the need to avert a depression. And the actions that he took with Congress in 2009 are widely viewed to have done that. And then to, as things began to stabilize, to go about the business of getting our fiscal house in order in a reasonable, balanced, common-sense way. And we have been doing that.
As you know, it hasn’t always been pretty, but over the past year and a half the President has signed into law now $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction; a significant portion of that has been spending cuts. But it’s been done in a way that has allowed the economy to continue to grow and create jobs — not fast enough, not enough jobs, but it’s been positive growth and positive job creation.
I mean, I think — I don’t have the graph I had yesterday here, today, but the one that showed the dramatic decrease in the deficit in the last several years, the sharpest decrease in the deficit since World War II. And then, what would happen based on our projections if the President’s proposal to Speaker Boehner were implemented in terms of bringing that deficit down even further and stabilizing it below 3 percent of GDP. That’s the approach we believe is right, because it’s the best for sustained economic growth.
Q To what extent was that, though, a powerful negative example for him? People’s outlooks change from their experiences in the presidency. I have heard that it was a big spur for him to take this particular position.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t want to characterize the President’s thinking on what other countries have been doing. He’s focused on what he believed was the right course for the United States, and believes that while we have significant work to do to continue to grow our economy and have it create jobs, that we made the right choices. And the results have borne that out.
Again, very much like the fact that we need to continue to focus on growing our economy, expanding the middle class, helping people who aspire to the middle class enter the middle class. And that’s why that’s his number-one priority. It’s been the focus of his State of the Union address. And it’s why the debate we’re having over this crazy thing called sequester or sequestration is so important, because the last thing we should be doing in Washington is throwing a wrench in an economy that has been moving in the right direction.
Q Jay, two questions. First, just one month ago, Secretary Clinton said that the U.S. opposes any unilateral action seeking to undermine Japan’s administration —
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry, who said that?
Q Secretary Clinton.
MR. CARNEY: Hillary Clinton is no longer Secretary.
Q Yes, former Secretary.
MR. CARNEY: Oh, I see.
Q Yes, she said the U.S. will oppose any unilateral actions seeking to undermine Japan’s administration over Diaoyu Islands. And I just want to know, is that the firm position that the President will address?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t seen those comments. I would simply say that the President’s meeting with the Prime Minister in just a little while here, and there will be a pool spray, and I think they both will have statements. So I don’t want to get ahead of that.
Q And also, on North Korea. Russia and China today — they say they oppose any military intervention in North Korea. What’s the position of the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would urge you to hear what the President has to say today. I think we got to go, because —
Q Can I do just one quickly?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, one more, Kristen.
Q Can you comment on or confirm the reports that the United States is preparing to establish a drone base in Northwest Africa?
MR. CARNEY: I think those reports are fairly old, but I have no comment on that. Thanks.
Q Week ahead, sir?
MR. CARNEY: I do have a week ahead.
Q Old but no comment?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I remember — I don’t know, is this a new report? There was a report that I —
Q Well, in light of —
MR. CARNEY: — didn’t comment on the other day or I had a comment on. I’m not sure this is a new report.
Q Do you have a timeframe on it?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll have to get back to you, Kristen. I’m not sure what our —
Q — that you’re aware of.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
On Sunday, the President and First Lady will welcome the National Governors Association to the White House for the 2013 Governors Dinner. The Vice President and Dr. Biden will also attend.
On Monday, the President and the Vice President will deliver remarks to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room. The First Lady and Dr. Biden will also deliver remarks.
On Tuesday, the President will travel, as you know, to Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia — region of my forebears — to highlight the devastating impact that the sequester will have on jobs and middle-class families if congressional Republicans fail to compromise to avert the sequester by March 1st. In just seven days, a series of automatic cuts could go into effect that would severely affect companies like this one that depend on the defense industry and its workers. This company has a supplier base in all 50 states, many of which are small businesses that rely solely on Newport News Shipbuilding for their business. The President will return to Washington, D.C. later in the day.
On Wednesday, the President will deliver remarks at the unveiling of a statue of Rosa Parks at the United States Capitol. In the evening, the President will deliver remarks at the Business Council Dinner here in Washington, D.C.
And on Thursday and Friday of next week, the President will attend meetings here at the White House.
Thank you all.
Q Jay, real quickly, have there been any furloughs in the White House? Has the Chief of Staff ordered any furloughs? Is your staff going to be affected?
MR. CARNEY: I took this question. As you know and has been reported, the EOP is affected by the sequester. And I’m sure that the OMB has been working on that as it has with every agency.