by Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica.
When the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt faced cancellation this year due to the package of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, the National Park Service kicked into high gear. It rescued the event — held since 1878 — with money from “corporate sponsors and the sale of commemorative wooden eggs,” according to The Washington Post.
Other programs haven’t been so lucky. Children in Indiana have been cut from the federally funded Head Start preschool program. Last week, the White House announced furloughs for 480 staffers in the Office of Management and Budget. And cuts to Medicare have forced cancer clinics to turn away thousands of patients who are being treated with drugs the clinics can no longer afford.
We’ve taken a look at what’s actually happened in the six weeks since sequestration took effect.
Remind me, what is sequestration again?
Remember the clash over the debt ceiling back in 2011? When Republicans and President Obama struck a deal to raise it, they created a “super committee” of six Democrats and six Republicans and gave them three and a half months to hash out $1.2 trillion worth of cuts to the federal budget over the next decade. If they failed, a package of automatic cuts designed to slash funding to programs dear to both parties (military spending, in the Republicans’ case, and Medicare and other domestic programs in the Democrats’) would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.
Needless to say, the super committee failed, leading to the cuts we’re seeing now.
How does this fit in with the “fiscal cliff”?
Sequestration was one element of the “fiscal cliff,” which also included a number of other spending cuts and tax increases. Congress passed a last-minute deal Jan. 1 to blunt the cliff’s impact, which included pushing back the effective date for sequestration to March 1. While Obama and members of Congress spoke out against the sequestration in February — Senate Democrats announced a plan to put it off for another 10 months — those efforts failed to stop the cuts.
So what’s happened since March 1?
The indiscriminate cuts span a wide range of federal programs and departments, making them difficult to track. (Even the White House struggled to explain exactly which programs they’d hit as it was denouncing them.) Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters Feb. 28 that sequestration would have “a rolling impact, an effect that will build and build and build.”
Congress passed a bill, signed by Obama on March 26, to spare a few programs from cuts this year, including an infant nutrition program, the nuclear weapons program and funding for security at U.S. embassies abroad — a sensitive area since the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September. The bill also gave some agencies, including the Pentagon, more flexibility in carrying out the sequester. But it didn’t reduce the total amount the government is required to cut — $85 billion — by the end of the fiscal year in October.
Gotcha. What has all this done to the economy?
The Congressional Budget Office estimates sequestration will cost around 750,000 jobs in total, and forecasters think it could reduce economic growth by half a percentage point this year. But with much of the sequester only beginning to take effect, the consequences have been hard to see so far. The sequester doesn’t seem to be responsible for the weak March jobs report, Annie Lowrey writes on the New York Times‘ Economix blog, and most furloughs have yet to take effect.
Do we know any more about what’s been affected?
Yes. Sequestration is still playing out, but here’s what we know has happened so far:
Congress: While lawmakers’ salaries are exempt from cuts, sequestration hasn’t spared congressional offices, which have had to slash their spending by 8.2 percent. “Magazine subscriptions have been canceled,” the Washington Post reported. “Constituents are getting email instead of snail mail. Invoices are getting a second look.” Sequestration has also cut into funding for the overseas fact-finding trips lawmakers often take, known as “codels.” House Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican, banned his caucus from using military aircraft for codels in February.
The White House: While the egg hunt was saved, the White House announced last month that it would stop giving tours due to sequestration. (Republicans criticized the decision, with Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma calling it “a dramatic overreaction.”) The White House has also furloughed 480 Office of Management and Budget staffers, and the president will voluntarily return five percent of his salary. (Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other officials have also announced that they will return a portion of their salaries.) But Roll Call has reported that the White House — which spent “more than a month of dodging questions” about the effects of sequestration on West Wing staffers — seems to have been spared from deep cuts.
Federal Agencies: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and other officials predicted in February that sequestration would cause lengthy delays at airports, but such delays don’t seem to have occurred. Flights on U.S.-based airlines came in on time with about the same frequency during the last two weeks in March as they did during the same period last year, the Los Angeles Times reported. But sequestration’s effects on other federal agencies and departments have been very real.
After sequestration forced Yellowstone National Park to cut $1.75 million from its $35 million budget, the park — run by the National Park Service — trimmed its payroll and decided to cut back on snowplowing, which would delay the park’s opening. Plowing was saved only when the Cody and Jackson Hole, WY chambers of commerce, fearing the economic impact of a late park opening, kicked in $170,000.
In Washington, agency after agency is planning to furlough its employees. “The Department of Housing and Urban Development,” the Washington Post reported, “will shut down for seven days starting in May, after concluding that staggering furloughs for 9,000 employees would create too much paperwork.” And the Department of Labor is planning to lay off 30 of the 74 lawyers it hired to work through a backlog of mine-safety citations that are under appeals. The department had hired the lawyers after a 2010 explosion at a mine run by a company that had received many such citations but fought them, preventing regulatory action against it. The move will save the Labor Department $2.1 million.
And while airline delays haven’t materialized, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it plans to close 149 airport control towers. Most of them are at rural airports, but the north tower at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is also on the list. The tower and O’Hare’s 27 Right runway opened in 2008 as part of a $450 million project that has boosted significantly the number of planes the airport can handle. But furloughs for O’Hare’s air traffic controllers mean the tower and the runway might be shut down for part of each day. After protests, the F.A.A. announced last week that it would delay the closings until June.
The Pentagon: Even with the bill signed by Obama in March, the Pentagon still must cut $41 billion from its budget this year, which Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as “the steepest decline in our budget ever.” (The Pentagon has been asked to cut more before, but never halfway through the fiscal year.)
Hundreds of thousands of civilian Defense Department employees will likely have to take 14 furlough days by October. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that everything from weapons to the number of generals and admirals could be cut.
Medicare: Cancer clinics last week began turning away thousands of Medicare patients being treated with expensive chemotherapy drugs, which the clinics say they can no longer afford. “Legislators meant to partially shield Medicare from the automatic budget cuts triggered by the sequester, limiting the program to a two-percent reduction — a fraction of the cuts seen by other federal programs,” the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff reported. “But oncologists say the cut is unexpectedly damaging for cancer patients because of the way those treatments are covered.” Medicare has said that it doesn’t have the power to restore funding for the drugs. (Rep. Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican, introduced a bill this week that would reverse the cuts.)
Education: The federally funded Head Start early education program is expected to lose about 70,000 of its roughly one million slots due to sequestration. Those cuts have already hit children in Indiana, where Head Start programs in two towns resorted to a lottery system in March to determine which kids could remain. Other Head Start programs — such as one in Passaic County, N.J that expects to lose about $200,000 of its roughly $4 million in federal funding — won’t have to wrestle with cuts until the fall.
Sequestration is also hitting schools on Indian reservations, where federal funds can make up 60 percent of a school’s budget. The Fort Peck Indian reservation in Montana “can’t hire a reading teacher in an elementary school where more than half the students do not read or write at grade level,” according to the Washington Post. Summer school may be cancelled. And the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota — where a shooting at the high school left seven people dead in 2005 — has cut its security staff, as well as course offerings and support staff, in response to sequestration.
Scientific Research: The sequester has also hacked away at funding for scientific research. The National Science Foundation expects to make 1,000 fewer grants this year. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN will admit fewer science and engineering graduate students. And the directors of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories expect that the “drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years.” More than 50 Nobel laureates have signed a letter protesting the cuts, which Hunter R. Rawlings III, the president of the Association of American Universities, has also decried. “To put it kindly, this is an irrational approach to deficit reduction,” he told a Senate committee in February. “To put it not so kindly, it is just plain stupid.”
Court System: Sequestration has cut the federal judiciary’s budget by almost $350 million for the 2013 fiscal year, which is already half over. In Massachusetts, public defenders will have to take 16½ furlough days — which could lead to a backlog in the court system — and funding for drug and mental health services will be cut by 20 percent. In Dallas, the public defender’s office will shut down every Friday for the next six months.
And in New York, public defenders representing Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former al Qaeda spokesman and a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden charged with conspiring to kill Americans, requested this week that a federal judge push back the trial date because of furloughs in their office. “It’s extremely troublesome to contemplate the possibility of a case of this nature being delayed because of sequestration,” Judge Lewis A. Kaplan said in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday. “Let me say only that — stunning.”
Wow. Has anybody beaten sequestration?
Yes. Weeks before the sequester hit, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack started describing how his department would have to furlough meat inspectors if the cuts went through, forcing meat-processing plants to shut down on furlough days. His talk convinced the meat inspectors’ union and other industry heavyweights to start lobbying. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation went to work, and the Senate ended up moving $55 million from other Agriculture Department programs to the inspectors.
Read David A. Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein’s excellent Washington Post story for more details.
How can I keep up with the sequester?
Here are some great resources for tracking the overall impact:
—The Huffington Post put together a list of sequestration’s effects around the nation.
—The Washington Post is charting the projected and actual impact on federal agencies.
—We’ve compiled some of the best charts and graphics explaining the sequester.
Have you seen any fantastic reporting, graphics or other resources on sequestration’s impact? Tweet us your recommendations with #muckreads.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite