What does smaller government look like? The budget standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans means Americans may soon find out, and the picture the Obama administration sketches is downright scary.
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.
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 to replace the reductions with a sweeping, bipartisan 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 Democratic-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 nondefense 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 cyberthreats 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.
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