At Head Start visit, Murphy blasts sequestration cuts

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), at right, talks with Housing Authority Executive Director Anthony Johnson during a tour of the Head Start pre-school at Armstrong Court. — Ken Borsuk photo

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), at right, talks with Housing Authority Executive Director Anthony Johnson during a tour of the Head Start pre-school at Armstrong Court.
— Ken Borsuk photo

The dialogue out of Washington, D.C., hasn’t focused lately on automatic across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect this year, and now U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said he wants to change that.

The cuts, which were known as the “sequestration,” impacted spending in all areas of the federal budget from the military to social services. There was a great deal of discussion about the sequestration late last year before it automatically went into effect as a kind of poison pill designed to get both parties in Congress together on a spending deal, but in the months since it has taken effect, the conversation has switched to other topics.

Because of that, Mr. Murphy, while appearing Monday in Greenwich at a Head Start pre-school, said that people have forgotten just how much of an impact these cuts are making.

“Sequestration is perhaps the dumbest way to go about cutting the federal budget,” Mr. Murphy said. “There’s no doubt we need to spend less as a government and tackle our deficit problem, but it should not come at the expense of the kids that we saw here today. These programs are investments that, frankly, save us money in the long run rather than cost us money.”

Mr. Murphy’s visit to Greenwich is part of an overall tour around the state this summer and he said he was “trying to find as many ways as I can to make people understand the reality of these automatic budget cuts.” He said that even though the cut to Head Start programs nationwide as well as other social services programs are only five or six percent, it compounds through the years. Mr. Murphy said that sequestration’s effect on Connecticut could mean 700 kids losing Head Start spots statewide this year with 150 people losing jobs with the organization.

“To me the Head Start cuts are the cruelest because these families don’t have anywhere else to turn for early childhood education,” Mr. Murphy said.

This is something that’s already very much on the mind of Family Centers in Greenwich. The organization runs the Head Start program in town at Armstrong Court and it hosted Mr. Murphy for a tour on Monday. He stepped in at several classrooms to talk to the preschool kids and their teachers as well as with the directors, staff and Anthony Johnson, head of the town’s Housing Authority.

Family Center’s Greenwich pre-school serves 63 kids, all from low-income families in town. Mr. Johnson talked to Mr. Murphy about the town-run housing for low-income residents and the town workforce, and Megan Sweeney, director of Early Care and Education for Family Centers, detailed the program. While classrooms haven’t had to be closed yet, the squeeze has been felt other ways.

Bob Arnold, president of Family Centers, even directly asked Mr. Murphy, albeit in a joking fashion, about when the money from the sequestration was going to be restored and he later told the Post that there have already been consequences.

“The sequestration has already hit in our funding,” Mr. Arnold said. “We’ve had to eliminate some part-time staff. Our program is relatively small. We only have 34 children in the program so we’re trying to eliminate what part-time staff we can and we’re also trying to raise some additional dollars. But I think as this goes on and there’s a compounding effect, we’ll have to look at other options like shortening the school day and we’re really hoping it won’t come to that because it will be a great burden on the families that we serve who really need to have this educational program run the full length of their work day.”

Ms. Sweeney added this has put a bigger burden on the staff, many of whom are already wearing multiple hats to serve the community while fewer people are available to help.

“We have a lot of mandates here and it will come to a point when we will no longer be able to effectively meet them,” Ms. Sweeney said.

But while Mr. Murphy said he was hopeful the money for the cuts could be restored, he said he didn’t see any action happening until the fall when Congress will once again be tasked with raising the debt ceiling, a once non-controversial action that allows the country to pay its bills that has become a political grenade in recent years. Since he said Washington “only seems to do something when there’s a crisis hanging over our heads” Mr. Murphy said debate over the debt ceiling was going to be the chance to have a bigger discussion over spending, taxes and entitlement programs.

And for this, Mr. Murphy said blame belonged to Republicans in the Senate aligned with the “tea party.”

“Republicans in Washington have come to like these automatic cuts,” Mr. Murphy said. “The tea party’s mission is to downsize government at any cost and automatic budget cuts are a means to their end. We essentially are going to have to make a trade with Republicans to roll back some of these budget cuts. We’re either going to have to give on tax reform or on entitlement reform in order to convince them to stop the cuts to Head Start or housing programs or health care programs. Tea party Republicans are not believers in federal funding for early childhood education.”

Mr. Murphy said he saw “no urgency” in his Republican colleagues, noting that the Senate Democrats had passed a budget that restored these cuts, but some in the Republican caucus are blocking it from going out to a conference committee. This has actually caused a visible split in the Republican Party with some like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling for allowing budget debate to proceed and others like newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), blocking it, leading to disputes on the floor of the Senate.

Because of this, Mr. Murphy said a “handful of Republicans” were holding up the process and called it “unacceptable” while once again calling for reform in Senate rules that have essentially forced a 60-vote threshold for anything to proceed instead of a simpler majority rule.

“We should be cutting spending, but members of Congress are elected to make decisions about where you should cut and where you shouldn’t cut,” Mr. Murphy said. “I’ve always argued there are three accounts that should be immune from federal spending cuts and that’s education, infrastructure and science. Those three programs account for a fairly small percentage of the federal budget.”

Mr. Murphy said there would have to be tough choices to reduce spending and suggested areas like agriculture subsidies and defense. He added that there would also have to be cuts in areas he supported like open space preservation and brownfields remediation because they aren’t as integral as education.

In the meantime, Mr. Murphy said he hoped the focus on areas like Head Start will have the same impact it did when people worried so much about cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because it would create more delays at airports that the pressure forced Congress to roll them back for that specific area only.

“We’ve got to bring visibility to these kids,” Mr. Murphy said. “We spared airport travelers the FAA cuts because every member of Congress walks in and out of the airports every single week and sees those affected people. But members of Congress do not walk into these classrooms and see these kids. When we’ve been able to expose a consequence of sequestration, like at the FAA, we’ve been able to win bipartisan support to draw back the cut.”

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