WASHINGTON — The $85 billion in federal budget cuts called the sequester, which some warned would shake the nation like an earthquake, seems like a series of isolated tremors that are easily overlooked but still destabilizing.
Taken as a whole, the impact of the mandated across-the-board cuts “so far has been really teeny,” said Barry Anderson, the deputy director of the National Governors Association. The U.S. economy is showing signs of improvement, with housing prices up, gasoline prices down and April’s 7.5 percent unemployment rate the lowest in four years.
But as the sequester continues, more Americans are learning that even the teeniest change in Washington spending can have a big impact on their lives. From furloughed workers to shuttered federal offices to canceled White House tours and lighter entitlement checks, the reality of the sequester is hitting home.
“Clearly, sequester was overhyped, in the sense that the impression was given that all the bad things would happen immediately, and that was not the case,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget-watchdog group. “There have been some real-world furloughs, and that does have a negative impact. The question is whether those have had consequences.”
A growing number of people think so. A May ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 37 percent of Americans think they’ve been adversely affected by federal budget cuts, up from 25 percent in a March poll. Half of the negatively affected respondents in both surveys described the impact on them as major.
The country got a collective taste of sequestration’s reach in April, when the furloughs of air traffic controllers left airport towers understaffed and triggered major flight delays. Complaints from passengers, airlines and the tourism industry spurred Congress to pass a bill that allowed the Department of Transportation to transfer as much as $253 million from other parts of the agency to keep airport towers sufficiently staffed.
“Everyone wants to know what’s the next big, splashy (budget cut) thing that happens,” said Sharon Parrott, the vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “There are example and stories across the country, but because there are so many cuts in so many places it’s hard to sort through.”
Many aren’t hard to find. The Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were closed May 24, their employees among the 125,000 federal workers furloughed without pay for at least a day. IRS offices will be closed again on July 5, July 22 and Aug. 30 because of the cuts.
Nearly 2 million long-term unemployed Americans will see less money in their unemployment checks. All but seven states already have imposed the cuts, which range from 10.7 percent in places such as Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and Pennsylvania to 23 percent in Wyoming, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group.
In addition, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Maine have reduced the number of weeks residents can receive the emergency payments.
“There’s nothing overhyped here if this is what you’re living off of,” said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
In California, unemployed workers seeking help from the state’s Employment Development Department were told that they’d better telephone before lunchtime because the employees manning the agency’s benefits call-center hotline won’t answer after that, as they shift to other duties from noon to 5 p.m. because of budget cuts.
In Florida, sequester-related cuts to the Alliance for Aging, a private, nonprofit group that helps administer federal dollars to programs that assist senior citizens, is forcing Rosanna Taveras to shut down a Miami Gardens program run through Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami that feeds 30 hot lunches a day to the occupants of an apartment building.
“These clients live in low-income housing,” said Taveras, the shock of a $45,000 cut from the alliance still resonating in her voice. “They’ll have to prepare their meals for themselves or have one less meal. I thought we were going to be saved.”
While the Pentagon has been praised for thus far averting the gloom and doom scenarios that former Defense Department Secretary Leon Panetta painted about the fate of national security under the sequester, military families are fretting about what the cuts are doing to deployments and the quality of life on bases, according to a recent survey by Blue Star Families.
Of particular concern is a plan to furlough nearly 11,000 teachers for five days beginning in September at 193 Defense Department schools worldwide that serve 83,391 students. The teachers are getting a reprieve of sorts: Eighty-five percent of the Defense Department’s 770,000 civilian employees are scheduled to be furloughed for 11 days this fiscal year, starting in July.
“The Defense Department should look for a smarter way to address the budget restrictions through sequestration,” Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week. Although the National Governors Association said the sequester’s overall imprint on states had been minuscule thus far, governors from 40 states are complaining about the federal government trying to recoup millions of dollars of what it claims is sequestered money that was allocated before the budget cuts kicked in March 1.
The states – including Alaska, Idaho and Oregon – received notices from the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service asking them to repay about $17.9 million that had been allocated to them through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The act provides funding for rural counties and schools in areas where timber is grown.
“Secure Rural Schools payments were made on time in early January 2013 while the sequestration debate continued in Congress,” Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell explained in a letter to the governors association. “Subsequently, the sequestration took effect, and agencies were required to implement it.”
Needless to say, Tidwell’s demand has made timber-state lawmakers hopping mad.
“Rural communities should not have to pay the price for the bad planning of your agency,” Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chair and the ranking Republican of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote in a letter to Tidwell in April.
Anderson warns that if people think the sequester is painful now, they should wait until fiscal year 2014 begins Oct. 1, when $91 billion in discretionary federal spending has to be sliced in addition to $18 billion in automatic mandatory cuts in programs such as Medicare.
“It hasn’t hurt so bad yet,” he said, “but, gosh, it could hurt a lot next year.”