Regular readers of this column have heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m often embarrassed by the questions my colleagues ask at White House briefings. This week was no exception.
Among reporters inside the Beltway, the latest narrative, repeated without qualification, is that the Obama administration is guilty of exaggerating the impact of the sequester. After all, those $1 trillion across-the-board cuts, $85 billion of which will happen this fiscal year, kicked in on March 1. They’ve been in place for more than a month now. And the sky hasn’t fallen. Trains are still running on time, Major League Baseball opened the season on schedule, and the lights still come on when you flip the switch. Only White House tours have been canceled. So what’s the big deal?
God forbid reporters pause long enough to do a little independent research before repeating that nonsense. If they did, they wouldn’t join the chorus. That narrative is dead wrong. For two reasons. First, nobody ever said the sequester axe would fall immediately, or all at one time. It takes a long time to bring a battleship to a dead stop. It takes a long time to shut down, or even slow down a government agency.
Everybody knew the sequester cuts would begin gradually and deepen over the weeks and months ahead. One month already? As President Reagan might say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” The worst is still to come.
But that “so what?” attitude is also wrong because, in fact, serious impacts of the sequester are already being felt in every state. Writing in the Huffington Post this week, Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel documented 100 examples of budget cuts already in place, including: 175 workers fired from the U.S. Army garrison in Rock Island, Ill.; 128 civilians fired from Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Tenn.; 1,600 health care jobs in Hampton Roads, Va., left unfilled.
If they were lucky enough to hold onto their jobs, thousands of government workers have been forced to take a furlough, meaning one day a week without pay, or a 20 percent pay cut. They include 480 employees of the Office of Management and Budget, part of the White House staff; 60 employees at the Head Start program in Allegheny County, Pa.; and 280 workers at the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, N.Y. In addition, the FAA has informed all 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, that they will be furloughed one or two days per pay period.
Further cuts: airport towers shut down in 149 smaller airports, including Frederick, Md., and Lewiston, Idaho; air shows canceled in Rapid City, S.D., Cleveland, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky.; Head Start staff and/or students cut in Cincinnati, Ohio, Laramie, Wyo., Morris County, N.J., Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and Bethlehem, Pa. The towns of Columbus and Franklin, Ind., held a lottery to determine which kids would stay in their Head Start programs and which ones would be dumped.
If White House reporters are unaware of any adverse impacts of the sequester, the bad news hasn’t been lost on local media. The Sun-Sentinel in Palm Beach County, Fla., reports: “Needy senior citizens won’t get breakfast and poor children won’t get rides to preschool” under new budget cuts. WPRI News in East Providence, Rhode Island, broke the story of 8,000 Rhode Islanders faced with a 12 percent, or average $46 per week, cut in federal unemployment benefits.
These cuts could not come at a worse time. The Census Bureau reports that nearly 50 million people — one of out of every six Americans — now live in poverty, defined as $23,201 per year for a family of four. More than 20 percent of American kids live in poverty. Yet every federal program designed to help the poor — Head Start, food stamps, low-income housing, and Medicaid, among others — will be severely cut back under the sequester.
Also this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that the sequester has already undermined our military readiness. “The sequester cut, because it falls heavily on operations and modernization accounts,” he explained, “is already having a disruptive and potentially damaging impact on the readiness of the force.”
Outside the Beltway, the evidence is in. The sequester is already inflicting real pain on real people in the real world. Too bad so many White House reporters don’t live in the real world.