WASHINGTON -- Victims of sequestration lashed out at Congress on Friday, after lawmakers moved swiftly to address long lines at airports while leaving other cuts, primarily those affecting low-income Americans, unaddressed.
"It's perplexing that we're saving programs that are inconveniencing others, but we're not saving programs that are saving lives," said Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels, which estimates that, because of sequestration, seniors will be getting 19 million fewer meals.
The bewilderment was prompted by votes Thursday night and Friday morning that granted the Department of Transportation more budget flexibility to deal with the furloughs of 47,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees, including 15,000 flight controllers. Those furloughs had started to take place on Monday. But a swift outcry from consumers forced to endure flight delays, along with attacks from Republicans who placed the blame at the feet of the president, resulted in swift action from lawmakers just before they flew home for recess.
The ability of Congress to move with haste amazed those organizations and advocates who have spent months -- and in some cases, years -- lobbying lawmakers to come to an agreement on a sequestration fix. Cuts affecting their programs and priorities have also taken a toll, often with more severe consequences than tarmac delays. So far, however, their influence peddling has amounted to very little.
"The sequester is really obvious when you are standing in line at an airport," explained Sue Nelson, vice president of federal advocacy at the American Heart Association. "I was waiting in line myself. People that you think never heard the word 'sequester' were using it in line. The problem with the National Institute of Health is, you are not going to die tomorrow because of a sequester cut. What it will mean is some cure for heart failure or a disease that could have been available in your lifetime may now not be."
Others were more incredulous than circumspect about Congress' quick work on the FAA fix.
"This is an issue that we have been trying to raise in every avenue we can find, having our doctors and patients call congressional offices to explain what an emergency it is for us and patients in terms of access and continuity of care," said Dr. William Nibley of Utah Cancer Specialists, based in Salt Lake City. "We haven't gotten much of a response. Then there is a little news about delays and all the sudden there is legislation and debate. That's frustrating to us. We think cancer patients and their access to care is an issue that is critical. Those patients feel like their care is super-critical and it's being ignored."
"I would invite anyone in Washington to come look my patients in the eye and tell them that waiting for a flight is a bigger problem than traveling farther and waiting longer for chemotherapy," he added.
Cancer patients dependent on Medicare prescription drug coverage, Nibley noted, don't have the same lobbying muscle as the airline industry or unions representing aviation workers. Instead, they've been forced to appeal to the better angels of the political system for help.
Other groups being hit hard by the sequester are in the same bind.
"If this wasn't just poor people's programs affected most, there would be national outrage," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "It places the cuts on the most vulnerable and the least visible."
Indeed, many of these programs with the least political power are the ones enduring the deepest budget cuts. The Corporation for National and Community Service, for instance, is facing a $38 million cut due to sequestration, meaning 4,200 fewer AmeriCorps positions to aid the country's neediest communities.
"That's going to mean after-school centers have less support, teachers have fewer additional adults in classrooms and fewer people responding to national disasters if they happen," said Zach Maurin, executive director of the grassroots service advocacy group ServeNext.
Hollander, meanwhile, noted that sequestration comes as part of a perfect storm for many advocacy groups. Meals on Wheels has lost both public and private funding in the recession, while facing increased demand as more baby boomers require their services.
"The businessmen and -women who are inconvenienced by flight delays can certainly afford their lobbyists, but sadly our homebound and hungry seniors who rely on Meals on Wheels as their lifeline can't," she said.
Yasmina S. Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said that her group had sent parents and children who participate in the pre-K program to local congressional offices to lobby for relief from budget cuts. They'd personally met with lawmakers themselves and were planning to distribute drawings, made from the handprints of Head Start students, to hammer home the point. It would not compare, she conceded, to the money spent by other well-heeled groups.
"When you listen to the parents and families, it is very real, their concerns and everything else," said Vinci. "We don't have the well-financed lobbyists, but we are certainly going to be doing what we can on the ground."
While several groups were critical of what they perceived to be special treatment for inconvenienced airline travelers, others were worried that Congress' quick fix would undermine a broader political strategy to get the sequester replaced in full. The Obama administration's plan to resolve the sequestration standoff, after all, was for the pain of those cuts to be felt so widely that it would prompt lawmakers to come together on a replacement package.
Groups affected by sequestration had formed an alliance -- the Non Defense Discretionary Coalition -- to ensure that there was collective work being done toward a replacement bill, as opposed to individual efforts to get a reprieve from the budget cuts. An official involved in the group said that there had been discipline up through sequestration's taking effect at the beginning of March. But now that the pain is being truly felt, it's become harder to keep everyone unified.
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