The sequester will not stop to contemplate whether these are the right programs to cut; it is entirely indiscriminate, slashing programs whether they are bloated or essential. The military budget, for example, should be reduced substantially, but thoughtfully, considering the nation’s needs. Instead, every weapons system, good or bad, will be hurt, as will troop training and maintenance.
These cuts, which will cost the economy more than one million jobs over the next two years, are the direct result of the Republican demand in 2011 to shrink the government at any cost, under threat of a default on the nation’s debt. Many Republicans say they would still prefer the sequester to replacing half the cuts with tax revenue increases. But the government spending they disdain is not an abstract concept. In a few days, the cuts will begin affecting American life and security in significant ways.
While some departments may have exaggerated the dire effects of their reductions, Congressional budget experts say they have little doubt that the size and pervasive nature of the sequester will inflict widespread pain. Here are some examples from the government departments most affected:
NATIONAL SECURITY Two-week furloughs for most law-enforcement personnel will reduce Coast Guard operations, including drug interdictions and aid to navigation, by 25 percent. Cutbacks in Customs agents and airport security checkpoints will “substantially increase passenger wait times,” the Homeland Security Department said, creating delays of as much as an hour at busy airports. The Border Patrol will have to reduce work hours by the equivalent of 5,000 agents a year.
The Energy Department’s nuclear security programs will be cut by $900 million, creating delays in refurbishing the weapons stockpile, and cutting security at manufacturing sites. Environmental cleanup at nuclear weapons sites in Washington State, Tennessee, South Carolina and Idaho will be delayed.
AIR TRAFFIC About 10 percent of the Federal Aviation Administration’s work force of 47,000 employees will be on furlough each day, including air traffic controllers, to meet a $600 million cut. The agency says it will be forced to reduce air traffic across the country, resulting in delays and disruptions, particularly at peak travel times.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE Every F.B.I. employee will be furloughed for nearly three weeks over the course of the year, the equivalent of 7,000 employees not working each day. The cut to the F.B.I. of $550 million will reduce the number of background checks on gun buyers that the bureau can perform, and reduce response times on cyberintrusion and counterterrorism investigations.
A cut of $338 million will mean more than a two-week furlough for 37,000 prison employees. This will result in lockdowns at federal prisons across the country, increasing the chances for violence and risks to guards, and preventing the opening of three new prison buildings.
Federal prosecutors will handle 2,600 fewer cases, because of furloughs resulting from a $100 million cut. That means thousands of criminals and civil violators will not face justice, and less money will be collected in fines.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION About 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start, and 14,000 teachers and workers will be laid off, because of a $424 million cut. Parents of about 30,000 low-income children will lose child-care assistance.
HEALTH AND SAFETY A cut of $350 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will mean 25,000 fewer breast and cervical cancer screenings for low-income women; 424,000 fewer H.I.V. tests; and the purchase of 540,000 fewer doses of vaccine for flu, hepatitis and measles. Community health centers will be cut by $120 million, meaning that about 900,000 fewer patients lacking insurance will receive primary care.
A three-week furlough of all food safety employees will produce a shortage of meat, poultry and eggs, pushing prices higher and harming restaurants and grocers. The Agriculture Department warns that public health could be affected by the inevitable black-market sales of uninspected food.
Several air-monitoring sites will be shut down, as will more than 100 water-quality projects around the country. About $100 million will be cut from Superfund enforcement, allowing companies to evade their responsibilities to clean up environmental disasters.
RESEARCH Nearly 1,000 grants from the National Science Foundation will be canceled or reduced, affecting research in clean energy, cybersecurity, and reform of science and math education.
RECREATION National parks will have shorter hours, and some will have to close camping and hiking areas. Firefighting and law enforcement will be cut back.
DEFENSE PERSONNEL Enlisted personnel are exempt from sequester reductions this year, but furloughs lasting up to 22 days will be imposed for civilian employees, who do jobs like guarding military bases, handle budgets and teach the children of service members. More than 40 percent of those employees are veterans.
The military’s health insurance program, Tricare, could have a shortfall of up to $3 billion, which could lead to denial of elective medical care for retirees and dependents of active-duty service members.
MILITARY OPERATIONS The Navy plans to shut down four air wings on March 1. After 90 days, the pilots in those air wings lose their certifications, and it will take six to nine months, and much money, to retrain them. The Navy has also said the Nimitz and George H. W. Bush carrier strike groups will not be ready for deployment later this year because the service will run out of operations and maintenance money. This means the Truman and Eisenhower strike groups will remain deployed indefinitely, a decision affecting thousands of service members and their families.
Continuous bomber flights outside of Afghanistan will be reduced, and there will be cutbacks to satellite systems and missile warning systems.
TRAINING AND MAINTENANCE The Army, which has done most of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, says it will be forced to curtail training for 80 percent of its ground forces and that by the end of the year, two-thirds of its brigade combat teams will fall below acceptable levels of combat readiness. Air Force pilots expect to lose more than 200,000 flying hours. Beginning in March, roughly two-thirds of the Air Force’s active-duty combat units will curtail training at their home bases, and by July will no longer be capable of carrying out their missions. Some ship and aircraft maintenance will be canceled for the third and fourth quarters of the fiscal year, resulting in fewer available weapons.
Last week, Senate Democrats produced a much better plan to replace these cuts with a mix of new tax revenues and targeted reductions. About $55 billion would be raised by imposing a minimum tax on incomes of $1 million or more and ending some business deductions, while an equal amount of spending would be reduced from targeted cuts to defense and farm subsidies.
Republicans immediately rejected the idea; the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, called it “a political stunt.” Their proposal is to eliminate the defense cuts and double the ones on the domestic side, heedless of the suffering that even the existing reductions will inflict. Their refusal to consider new revenues means that on March 1, Americans will begin learning how austerity really feels.