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Rules of the Game: Sequester Spells Bitter K Street Failure

The seemingly inevitable sequester cuts that will slash $85 billion from the federal budget on Friday reflect not only Washington’s political paralysis but a bitter lobbying failure for K Street interests across the board.

From university professors and scientists to cancer victims, defense contractors and federal workers, hundreds of advocacy, trade and labor groups have lobbied aggressively for months to head off the cuts. They’ve run ads, testified on Capitol Hill, staged demonstrations and hounded lawmakers, all to no avail.

“There’s great frustration that our leaders haven’t found a way to come together on this,” said Matt Owens, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, which has fought alongside science and manufacturing groups to advocate for federal spending on research and education.

While public attention has centered on the defense industry, which would absorb about half of the automatic cuts, many smaller players say their programs would be devastated. These include advocates working to prevent and cure illnesses such as ovarian cancer, spina bifida and diabetes, often on shoestring budgets.

“What concerns me is that these aren’t necessarily smart cuts,” said Cara Tenenbaum, vice president for external affairs at the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, which this month joined with some four dozen health care advocates in a lobby day on Capitol Hill. Their message: The Centers for Disease Control’s investment in ovarian cancer research and prevention — $9.9 million in fiscal 2012 — costs little but saves big money in the long run.

It’s a common refrain among opponents of the cuts. The National Park Service costs the government about $2 billion a year but delivers $31 billion back to the economy, argue volunteer activists representing the Coalition of National Park Services Retirees.

“We would argue that it’s cheaper to keep people healthy than to pay for them when they’re sick,” said Emily Holubowich, a Washington consultant who serves as executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding and who helped pull together a far-flung coalition of some 3,500 organizations opposed to the sequester cuts.

Many Republicans and deficit hawks counter that across-the-board cuts may pinch but are at least a common-sense first step toward fiscal responsibility, given Washington’s prolonged inaction on deficit reduction.

The automatic cuts were deliberately designed by Congress in 2011 as an unpalatable fallback option that would kick in only if lawmakers failed to craft a budget deal that would cut domestic spending by about $1 trillion over a 10-year period. After repeatedly falling short, Washington lawmakers appear increasingly resigned to the cuts’ inevitability.

“Time and time again, economic studies have shown that countries that reduce their government deficits through spending cuts — rather than tax increases — can boost economic growth and job creation even in the short term,” wrote Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, in a National Review Online commentary.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have started taking a closer look at sequester cuts that will affect naval shipyards, research labs and military facilities in their own backyards. Some members of Congress, along with White House officials, have encouraged constituents to speak out against the sequester.

“Cutting federal spending sounds wonderful, and it’s an applause line when you’re back home,” Holubowich said. “But the reality of that hasn’t set in with the public.” However, she added, “it’s starting to set in with lawmakers.” Indeed, the outlook might change once constituents start losing access to camping areas and waiting in longer lines at airports.

“We’re pushing to the end and beyond,” said Cord Sterling, vice president of legislative affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association. Even if the sequester is allowed to kick in Friday, lawmakers could mitigate the worst of the cuts as part of a fiscal 2013 budget deal.

“We’re still beating the drum,” said Jeremy Scott, a government relations director at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is representing the Spina Bifida Association and others.

But the path forward could be a lobbying nightmare. A continuing budget resolution that’s keeping the government open expires at the end of March. Congress must then enact either another resolution or an omnibus spending bill to keep operations running, which is when some sequestered programs’ funding might be restored. “It’s a mess,” Scott said.

And even if lawmakers manage to soften the blow of the sequester, bigger budget fights are looming over even tougher issues, such as tax increases and entitlements.

“I’m hopeful that [members of Congress] will understand that you can’t solve deficit reduction by continuing to cut discretionary spending,” Owens said. “Rather, there has to be a bigger solution.”

This story has been updated to clarify that the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance participated in a lobby day on Capitol Hill this month with other health care advocates.

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