Cuts in the Navy’s Pacific operations of one-third. Furloughed food inspectors forcing nationwide closures of meat and poultry plants. Ten thousand laid-off teachers. A $1 billion reduction in the relief fund for disaster victims. Less secure airline flights and longer waits on airport security screening lines. Reduced monitoring of air pollution, oil spills and hazardous waste.
All this and more because $85 billion in cuts across most federal programs will be automatically triggered March 1 unless Obama and Republicans do something that’s eluded them for months: approve alternative savings instead.
A look at the fight over the so-called sequester and what its impact could be:
• State of play: The cuts – plus nearly $1 trillion more over the coming decade – were enacted two years ago in hopes that their sheer ugliness would force the two sides into a sweeping deficit-reduction deal. So far that’s not happened.
The administration has repeatedly warned that the sequester must be avoided. White House budget office controller Daniel L. Werfel told Congress on Thursday that they would have “destructive consequences.”
Though many lawmakers of both parties would like to find a way out, conservative Republicans have said they’re willing to live with the reductions. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Associated Press this week that “we’re going to be stuck with it” until Obama proposes a solution that can pass the Democrat-led Senate.
• Overall impact: Administrations past and present always excel at threatening scenarios that make it appear that life as we know it will end. In this case, the law limits the flexibility government officials will have to protect favored programs, but Werfel wrote that the White House has instructed agencies to give priority to avoiding cuts that could “present risks to life, safety or health” and seek other ways to minimize harm to important government services.
The sequester law exempts Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare recipients’ benefits from cuts, but most programs are vulnerable.
The cuts were expected to mean reductions this year of 8 percent in defense and 5 percent in non-defense programs. But because lawmakers recently delayed the impact until March 1 – meaning they will affect only the last seven months of the government’s budget year – the sequester will force deeper reductions of 13 percent for defense and 9 percent for other programs.
• Defense: The Defense Department announced last week that because of the cuts it is withdrawing one of its two aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf region, but there’s more coming.
The Navy’s top officer, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, told Congress that because of the sequester and already planned long-range reductions, the Navy could not fully support counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen. A letter the Pentagon sent to Congress this week says the military will protect operations for ongoing wars, but expects to curtail maintenance of aircraft and ships, reduce training and maintenance for some Army units and cut Air Force flying hours. There would probably be a freeze in hiring civilians, instead of the 1,500 to 2,000 new jobs monthly. Current civilian workers could be furloughed up to 22 days. And the military’s Tricare health care system could lose $3 billion, threatening elective care for some military dependents and retirees.
• Homeland Security: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote to Congress that there will be fewer border agents and fewer facilities for detained illegal immigrants. There would be reduced Coast Guard air and sea operations, furloughed Secret Service agents and weakened efforts to detect cyber threats to computer networks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund would lose more than $1 billion. “We do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without placing our nation at risk,” Napolitano wrote.
• Education: Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 70,000 Head Start pupils would be removed from the pre-kindergarten program, about 1 of every 13. Duncan warned those cuts would mean layoffs of 10,000 teachers and thousands of other staffers because of cuts in federal dollars that state and local governments use for schools. Cuts for programs for handicapped and other special needs students would threaten 7,200 teachers and aides, he said.
• Health: The National Institutes of Health would lose $1.6 billion, trimming research on cancer, drying up money for hundreds of other research projects and eliminating up to 20,000 private research positions nationwide. Health departments would give 424,000 fewer tests for the AIDS virus this year. More than 373,000 seriously ill people may not receive needed mental health services.
• Transportation: The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough most of its 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, for an average of 11 days, with most furloughs probably over the summer. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told employees in a letter this week that while the furloughs can be managed safely, “We might see travel delays and disruptions during the critical summer travel season.”
• Environment: Cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency would jeopardize its ability to protect the public from oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste, according a letter from Bob Perciasepe, who became interim head of the agency on Friday until a replacement is named. States would have to shut down some pollution monitors that determine if air is healthy to breathe. The popular color-coded air quality forecasting system that keeps schoolchildren and others inside on bad air days would be curtailed or eliminated.
The EPA, which already inspects only a tiny fraction of facilities with the potential to spill oil, would do even less. New models of cars and trucks could be delayed from getting to dealership lots because the EPA couldn’t quickly validate that they meet emissions standards.
• Internal Revenue Service: A Treasury Department letter to Congress said the IRS would review fewer tax returns, which “could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue.” The agency offered no specifics but said each $1 spent on the IRS has meant at least $4 in additional revenue.
• Agriculture: The Agriculture Department says meat inspectors could be furloughed up to 15 days, shutting meatpacking plants intermittently and costing up to $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. The Food and Drug Administration would conduct 2,100 fewer food facility inspections this year.
• FBI: FBI Director Robert Mueller wrote to Congress that sequestration would be the equivalent of cutting 2,285 employees, including 775 agents, through furloughs and a hiring freeze. Every FBI employee would be furloughed for 14 workdays.
• Interior Department: The department says it is preparing to reduce hours and services at all 398 national parks and might close up to 128 wildlife refuges. As much as $200 million in direct payments to states, mainly the West, could be eliminated. The cuts could force local governments to cut back on police and fire protection, schools, road maintenance and more.
• Labor: More than 3.8 million people jobless for six months or longer could see their unemployment benefits reduced by as much as 9.4 percent. Thousands of veterans would not receive job counseling. Fewer Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors could mean 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites. There would be fewer investigations into complaints workers are being denied minimum wage and overtime pay. About 1 million fewer people would get help finding or preparing for new jobs.
• Housing: The Department of Housing and Urban Development said about 125,000 households could lose benefits from the agency’s Housing Choice Voucher program and risk becoming homeless. The vouchers are the federal government’s major program to assist low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.