Before “sequestration” took effect, the Obama administration issued specific — and alarming — predictions about what it would bring. There would be one-hour waits at airport security. Four-hour waits at border crossings. Prison guards would be furloughed for 12 days. FBI agents, up to 14.
At the Pentagon, the military health program would be unable to pay its bills for service members. The mayhem would extend even into the pantries of the neediest Americans: Around the country, 600,000 low-income women and children would be denied federal food aid. But none of those things happened.
Sequestration did hit, on March 1. And since then, the $85 billion budget cut has caused real reductions in many federal programs that people depend on. But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.
The Washington Post recently checked 48 of those dire predictions about sequestration’s impact. Just 11 have come true, and some effects are worse than forecast. But 24 predictions have not come to pass. In 13 cases, agencies said it is too soon to know. So many predictions fell short because, in recent months, the administration and Congress did what was supposed to be impossible: They undid many of sequestration’s scariest reductions. In the process, this supposedly ironclad budget cut — ostensibly immune to political maneuvering — became a symbol of the reality that nothing in Washington is beyond politics.
In some cases, politicians transferred cuts from high-value programs to lower-value ones. Employee travel was limited. Maintenance deferred. But in other cases, they found “cuts” that didn’t cause much real-world pain. The Justice Department, for instance, prevented furloughs by “cutting” $300 million in money that had already legally expired, as well as $45 million meant to house detainees who didn’t exist.
This is why the sky didn’t fall. Sequestration was intended to show there was no longer any escape from austerity in Washington. There was.
“The dog barked. But it didn’t bite,” said Robert L. Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which pushes for fiscal responsibility in Washington. Bixby said he worries that this budget maneuvering will eventually backfire.
After all, sequestration is not finished, and another round of cuts is coming in October. “Next time you warn about those things, people just say, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and write it off as political hype,” Bixby said. “There is that danger.”
Sequestration had been drawn up as a “dumb” cut — it would slash accounts at many federal agencies equally. There would be no gaming the system. No getting out. It “won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day,” President Obama said on Feb. 19, decrying sequestration as a “meat-cleaver approach.” “It doesn’t make those distinctions.”
Now, however, it does. The Post found enormous variation among the outcomes of those administration predictions. In 13 cases, the results were unclear. Almost four months after sequestration took effect, the agencies could not, or would not, say if the predictions were coming true. In 11 cases, sequestration turned out to be as bad as advertised, or worse.
The Labor Department had predicted that emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed would be cut by 9.4 percent. But in some states, the reductions have been larger: 11 percent. For an individual, that could mean $450 less in benefits this year.
At the Pentagon, officials had predicted that they would reduce training for the Army, flying time for the Air Force and ship deployments for the Navy. They did all three. “It’s extremely hard to show a degradation in our readiness, although we feel it deeply across the force,” Pentagon spokeswoman Beth Robbins said.
Across the government, more than 125,000 employees have been furloughed from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service, and other agencies. About 650,000 Defense Department civilians will start taking 11 unpaid days next week. Public defenders are losing up to 15 days of pay.
In 24 cases, however, The Post’s review showed that the predictions were wrong — sequestration had not lived up to the administration’s alarms.
That included some cases in which furloughs were threatened but then reduced or eliminated. Customs and Border Protection agents, for example, faced up to 14 unpaid days before the Department of Homeland Security shifted money around last month to avoid the furloughs.
Administration officials say they didn’t exaggerate sequestration’s effects on purpose. They believed it would be that bad. But then they got unexpected help from Capitol Hill. “Subsequent to those estimates, Congress took action that changed a number of things,” an administration official said. The official was made available by the administration on the condition that the official speak anonymously.
So this is how Washington took the scare out of the sequester: In some cases, agencies dug into their budgets and found millions they could spare. In other cases, Congress passed a law that allocated new funds or shifted money around. In others, lawmakers signed off on an agency’s proposal to “reprogram” its money. In the process, the “meat cleaver” of sequestration often became a scalpel. It spared crucial programs but cut second-tier priorities such as maintenance, information technology, employee travel and scientific conferences.
At the U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, officials had said they would have to shut off 350 gauges that provide crucial predictions of impending floods. They didn’t. The real number is less than 90. What was cut instead? For one thing, $2.7 million in conference expenses have been chopped since February.
“That’s where science gets done, at those meetings. That’s where you present your preliminary results,” said Jerad Bales, the agency’s chief scientist for water. One example: Bales said the government spends about $1,000 per scientist who goes to an annual conference in San Francisco.
Last time, it sent 469 scientists. The attendance for this fall’s conference has not been set, but Bales guessed it would be more like 350, for a cost of $350,000. “We are not investing in the future,” Bales said. In other cases, however, budget maneuvers made sequestration even less painful. It wasn’t a cleaver. It wasn’t a scalpel. It was more like liposuction — carefully removing the things that would be missed the least.
The Justice Department, for instance, cut more than $300 million in what it called “expired balances.” In essence, this was money that had been allocated to the department in past years but wasn’t spent. When those years ended, the money expired; without Congress’s permission, it generally couldn’t be spent on anything new.
But, with Congress’s permission, it could still be “cut.” So, instead of saving money by furloughing FBI agents and prison guards, the department lost only what it wasn’t free to spend anyway.
“It really was a loophole that allowed the Justice Department to largely escape the consequences of sequester,” said Scott Lilly, a former congressional staffer who works at the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s a good thing that they got past it. But it also sort of nixed this whole notion that everybody’s being treated the same — and everybody’s having to tighten their belt in the same way.”
At the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress found a similarly painless cut. Furloughs were looming for air-traffic controllers. Travel delays were expected to pile up.
But they didn’t. Congress prevented the furloughs by substituting another “cut.” It took $253 million from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which gives grants to airports (among the longtime recipients: Lake Murray State Park Airport in Oklahoma, which was eligible for $150,000 per year, despite averaging one takeoff and one landing per week).
But the FAA’s loss wasn’t as bad as it sounds: The grantees that were entitled to this money had already told the government they didn’t need it this year. They didn’t have anything immediate to spend it on. The FAA might still, however, have given it to somebody else.
At the Department of Homeland Security, officials had predicted that there would be insufficient space to hold detained illegal immigrants. It was one of four Homeland Security predictions that didn’t come true; another one, about cutbacks at the Coast Guard, did.
What was cut instead? Some things that hurt: Maintenance. Employee bonuses. Hiring. And some things that didn’t.
The department, for example, cut $7.8 million for a grant program that helped prepare for disasters. But it told Congress that this program had $36 million waiting in the bank, “neither dedicated to a project nor an activity.” And it said the program was duplicative, anyway. Other federal programs were already doing the same thing. “There is no impact from this reduction because of the duplication,” the department told Congress.
At smaller agencies, predictions also turned out to be wrong. U.S. Park Police officers were supposed to have 12 furlough days. They took three. The National Park Service found $4 million in savings in its budget. It was, in sum, a remarkable disappearing act.
The Obama administration still gives credence to estimates that sequestration might cost the country up to 750,000 jobs. Research by Goldman Sachs has shown declines in federal payrolls and layoffs at defense contractors. But sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans, and its effects on the economy have been softened by a stronger job market and low interest rates.
“It was more the unquantified predictions of calamity by politicians that were wrong,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm.
But now, the Obama administration will seek to make the threat reappear. In October, when the new fiscal year begins, so will another round of sequestration. The administration expects a $109 billion cut. This time, it says, there will be fewer ways to soften its impact. Many of the easier trims have already been made. The White House is again pressing Congress to agree on a broader budget deal, and replace the sequester, before October comes.
The problem is, officials said all that before. “Their credibility — I don’t want to say it’s shot, but it’s definitely diminished,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who chairs a House subcommittee that has oversight over Homeland Security and has examined its sequestration predictions. “They’re going to have a hard time doing that, when they had the doomsday scenario, and the sky didn’t fall.”
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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