| WASHINGTON, Sept 28
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 Airports have not ground to
a halt. Fresh meat has not disappeared from supermarkets and the
economy has not slipped back into recession.
The U.S. government may have headed off some of the most
dire predictions about the "sequester," but over seven months,
the across-the-board spending cut has thrown sand into the gears
of the economic recovery.
The sequester has pulled some teachers from classrooms and
police from the streets. It has grounded Air Force planes and
docked Navy ships. The Forest Service had 500 fewer "hot shots"
to battle summer wildfires. And as many as 140,000 low-income
families may not get housing assistance that was once available.
The sequester wasn't supposed to happen. Congress set up the
automatic cuts in 2011, with the burden falling equally on
military and domestic programs, in an effort to force
negotiators to agree on more targeted budget savings.
But they failed to find common ground over the next year and
a half as Democrats protected Social Security and other benefits
and Republicans rejected tax hikes.
So on March 1, automatic cuts kicked in totaling $85
billion, or roughly 2 percent of the federal $3.5 trillion
budget. Social Security payments and the Medicaid health program
for the poor were spared, but many other programs, from military
to housing, took a 5 percent hit.
Congress eased the pain somewhat by giving agencies greater
budget flexibility: the Federal Aviation Administration avoided
furloughing air-traffic controllers by cancelling $247 million
in construction; the Agriculture Department averted a food price
spike when it kept meatpacking inspectors on the job by making
other cuts; and civilian Pentagon employees, originally facing
11 unpaid days, ended up taking only six.
The Justice Department was able to keep FBI agents on the
job by tapping unused funds from prior years. But cuts to its
community-policing fund mean that cities like Oakland,
California, now have fewer police on the streets, according to
Chuck Loveless of the American Federation of State, County and
If the sequester hasn't generated many sensational
headlines, some economists say it is playing out largely as they
predicted by slowing economic recovery and job creation.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in
July that based on data up to that point, the cuts would cost
900,000 jobs within a year. Goldman Sachs said earlier this
month that the federal furloughs had slowed personal income
growth over the summer.
"People are looking around and saying, 'Gee, the economy
hasn't imploded, life isn't so bad,'" said Stephen Fuller, an
economist at George Mason University who has tracked the impact.
"But they're clearly becoming more apparent, and I think we'll
see this in much slower growth for the rest of the year."
MORE WASTE, FRAUD, ABUSE
Democrats and many Republicans say the sequester is bad
policy but some conservatives say it has provided a welcome
check on a federal government that has grown too large.
"This restraint is helping to heal our economy by reducing
the debt - and deferred taxes - on future generations,"
Republican Senator Tom Coburn said on Friday.
In some parts of government, the sequester has prompted the
kind of belt-tightening that budget hawks say will be needed to
keep U.S. debt manageable. For example, it could spur the
Pentagon to open up its satellite program to competition more
"It provides an impetus to go ahead and get you there faster
because you have to save money," said Douglas Loverro, the
Pentagon's point man on space policy.
In other areas, however, the sequester has increased
Some federal courts now hire expensive private-sector
lawyers to represent poor defendants because public defenders
have been forced to take up to 20 unpaid days off this year.
Deferred repairs to Agriculture Department buildings in
Washington that were damaged by a 2011 earthquake will cost more
to fix in the future, the department says.
Government watchdogs say the sequester has hurt their
ability to monitor fraud and abuse, according to a survey by the
Association of Government Accountants.
And tax cheats may face less scrutiny. The Internal Revenue
Service now employs 10,000 fewer people than it did two years
ago and it shut down for three days this summer to save money.
"For every one dollar not invested in the IRS, the general
treasury's losing four dollars," said Colleen Kelley, president
of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents
150,000 federal workers.
The U.S. Navy says it had to mothball the USS Miami, an
arson-damaged nuclear submarine, when a manpower shortage drove
up repair costs. Another 11 ships have been kept in port.
Thirty-three Air Force squadrons grounded this year to save
money will need to boost their flying hours by 10 percent next
year to return to fighting shape.
To find immediate savings, the Pentagon has backed off on
energy efficiency efforts that could bring long-term savings,
according to construction-industry officials, who say some
Pentagon contracts no longer ask bidders to include
energy-efficient windows and other components.
"The sequester is creating a short-term solution that is
going to have long-term impacts on their energy-reduction
goals," said Tom Mertz, a senior vice president at Sundt
Construction in Phoenix.
BACK TO SCHOOL
For schools, the impact is just now hitting home.
The sequester means 57,000 fewer poor children will
participate in the Head Start preschool program this year.
That translates into 15 fewer kids, one less teacher, and
one less assistant in Fremont, Nebraska, where the program
already had 40 children on a waiting list.
Program director Stephanie Knust argues that those 15
Fremont kids will start kindergarten with fewer academic and
social skills than their peers.
Their older siblings might also feel the impact.
"The money that's supposed to be going to help our neediest
students is slowly disappearing for us," said Jeff Bisek, school
district superintendent for the White Earth Indian reservation
in Minnesota, where most students qualify for subsidized
Federally funded school programs for poor communities and
mentally and physically handicapped children have been
disproportionately hit by the sequester. The amount of federal
funds to local school budgets averages 8 percent but rises to
above 50 percent in some areas.
Bisek said he plugged a $250,000 shortfall this year partly
by scaling back tutoring and a program for teenage mothers. He
used a rainy-day fund and state aid to cover the difference.
Other schools don't have as much of a cushion.
On the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in South Dakota,
class sizes have risen and struggling students are less likely
to get individual help, said superintendent Carol Viet.
DROPPING OUT OF SCIENCE
As in education, cutbacks to scientific research may take
years to play out.
The National Institutes of Health canceled 700 grants, and
the Agriculture Department slashed 100 research projects. The
Army cut its research budget by half.
Scientists worry that, aside from thwarting potential
breakthroughs, the cuts could prompt young researchers to
abandon the field.
University of New England professor Ian Meng said he
couldn't hire assistants this summer to help him research
headaches and "dry eye" syndrome. Next year, Meng may have to
lay off some lab workers.
"The people I've invested in, have mentored, they certainly
are seeing that research is maybe not a priority for our
government," he said.
THE RENT COMES DUE
The sequester means Tamara Caston, a Houston-area school bus
driver, will face a $300 a month rent increase in July or have
to move to a smaller apartment with her 17-year-old son.
Faced with a $7 million federal aid cut, Houston's
public-housing authority is scaling back rent support.
The extra rent equals one week's take-home pay for Caston,
who says she may need a third job to cover her bills.
Across the country, many housing authorities have frozen
their client lists, though few people seem to have actually been
thrown out on the street. The Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities, a liberal think tank, estimates that by next January
140,000 fewer families will receive housing help.
Housing advocates say the cuts are likely to be worse if
Congress extends the sequester, as expected.
"I'm worried about the future," said Nan Roman of the
National Alliance to End Homelessness. "We're getting pretty
close to the bone."