United States’ big budget cuts: Will the bite match the bark?

By Fred Barbash ,Reuters

WASHINGTON — Delays of four hours or more at airports. Exasperating wait times for people, and goods, crossing America’s borders.

Reduced paychecks for thousands of civilians employed by the Pentagon. The U.S. Coast Guard, crippled in its patrols of U.S. waters. Meat shortages, thanks to cutbacks in food inspections. Teachers of low-income children and special-education students losing their jobs. These are just samples of the possible consequences of impending across-the-board U.S. government budget cuts as described by officials in President Barack Obama’s administration. About the only thing missing is the closing of Washington’s popular Smithsonian museums, often the first casualty of past budget battles. A spokeswoman said they would remain on normal hours and achieve their savings by reducing or halting construction projects. No one doubts that cutting US$85 billion in federal programs under the automatic “sequestration” cuts scheduled to take effect at 11:59 p.m. on Friday (0459 GMT Saturday) will hamper the services they provide. The International Monetary Fund warned the cuts could slow the U.S. and world economies.

But the precision of the predictions from Cabinet officials at White House briefings has become a source of political controversy. Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, spent much of Thursday’s briefing fending off reporters’ suggestions the administration was exaggerating, a sign perhaps of the risk the White House is taking by making the forecasts. “There are going to be delays as a result of a reduction in man-hours and personnel among our air-traffic controllers,” Carney said. “That’s a fact. And I hope you keep that in mind when you’re on your next commercial flight, and you’re delayed if that does, in fact, come into effect.” But at congressional hearings, officials have acknowledged less certainty and more nuance than reflected in worst-case scenarios at the White House. “The Coast Guard will reduce its presence in the Arctic by a third,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared at a White House briefing on Monday. “We will curtail our air and surface operations by more than 25 percent, affecting management of the nation’s waterways, as well as fisheries enforcement, drug interdiction and migrant interdiction.” But a day later, Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger, deputy Coast Guard commandant for operations, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that such “front-line operations” would be the “last place that I will go for cuts.” Jason Furman, special assistant to Obama for economic policy, told a briefing on Monday that the numbers provided were based on past experience with cutbacks and were “scrubbed” to be as accurate as possible.

But he added: “In some cases it could be a little better. In some cases, it could be a little worse, depending on how you reprioritize your money.” The full brunt of the automatic cuts will be borne over seven months and Congress can stop them at any time if the two parties agrees on how to do so.

Safety Net Untouched The amount of money being cut is indeed significant: roughly US$85 billion from about 30 percent of the programs funded by the government. The sequestration plan enacted by Congress in August 2011 left the rest of the US$3.7 trillion U.S. budget untouched, including the Social Security program for retirees and the Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs for seniors and the poor.