The drastic $85 billion in automatic spending cuts Congress approved in hopes of heading off another deficit showdown may or may not occur, but federal agencies say the threat has been disrupting government for months as officials take costly and inefficient steps to prepare.
A National Weather Service official is planning to shut down radars on sunny days in the South — and crossing his fingers that no unexpected storms pass through. New federal grants for medical research are being postponed, resulting in layoffs now and costly paperwork later. And military leaders, who are delaying training for active and reserve forces, are trying to negotiate millions of dollars in penalties that the Defense Department is incurring from canceled contracts.
This is what happens when the federal government prepares for something Congress never intended to become a reality. If Democrats and Republicans cannot end their deficit standoff by March 1, the cuts will kick in across the country. Sequestration, as the law is known, has sent agencies scrambling to buffer themselves, spending time and money that ultimately may be for naught.
Even if cuts take effect, it might not be for long — making the hiring freezes, canceled training, deferred projects, and lengthy planning for furloughs and other contingencies an exercise in inefficiency.
“There will be impacts for every decision we make,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. The service is deferring maintenance to conserve money “so we can train a pilot to go to Afghanistan” if cuts of up to 10 percent go through.
“Eventually we will have to fix that roof, but at that point it won’t be maintenance.”
As any family living paycheck to paycheck can attest, managing uncertainty can be a drain on energy and the pocketbook, not to mention the spirit. Such is the case for government managers and their staffs, whose problems are compounded by constrained spending under a temporary federal budget that lapses on March 27. Many expect another stopgap plan, and another, before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
And while the price tag of all this is — well, uncertain — the 2011 fight over the debt limit cost taxpayers more than $1.3 billion in additional borrowing costs, government auditors found. On top of that, Treasury Department employees responsible for avoiding default logged more than 400 hours of overtime and comp time.
That battle followed a budget showdown on Capitol Hill that brought the government within a day of shutting down, a scenario that some House Republican leaders say they don’t rule out supporting this year. The near-event took its own toll.
“Across the system millions of dollars were spent in shutdown procedures and gearing-back-up procedures,” said Joan Anzelmo, a park superintendent from Colorado who retired four months later.
This time around, a frustrated senior executive at the Department of Homeland Security said he and his staff have spent countless hours remaking budgets for every contingency.
“First we were told not to develop plans” for sequestration, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly. “Then we spent seven days a week coming up with them and [the cuts] got postponed. Now we’re doing it all over with new targets. It’s taking away from what we need to get done.”
Office of Management and Budget spokesman Steven Posner declined to comment on the planning costs. But Jeffrey Zients, the OMB’s acting budget director, warned lawmakers last summer that any planning “would necessarily divert scarce resources” from other important missions and priorities, “to say nothing of the disruptive effects this exercise would have” on federal workers and contractors. Any preparations “could inadvertently trigger some of the negative effects of sequestration even if sequestration never happens,” he said.
The sequestration law, passed in 2011 after that debt-limit fight, was to take effect Jan. 2. It was delayed two months after lawmakers and the White House agreed to raise taxes. The law calls for budget cuts of 8 percent to 10 percent, divided equally between military and domestic spending, saving $1.2 trillion over the next decade
The law’s fate grew murkier last week after House Republicans voted to suspend the country’s borrowing limit for three months, a proposal the White House and Senate Democrats have signaled they would accept.
In public, neither party is enthusiastic about sequestration, and some rank-and-file lawmakers say they will work to replace the cuts with other savings that would be less damaging to the military and other government services.
But time is running out for the two sides to agree on an alternative savings plan. Leaders in both parties said last week they believe the sequester will take effect — at least for a few weeks — while lawmakers wrestle with the expiration of the stopgap budget.