Effects Of Automatic Spending Cuts Become Clearer

The clock is ticking on the sequester. That's the Washington term for the across the board spending cuts that will take effect March 1st unless Congress acts to put them off.

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As we've been hearing, clock is ticking on the sequester. That is the Washington term for the across-the-board cuts that will take effect March 1, unless Congress acts to put them off.

The impact the $85 billion reduction in government programs could have became a bit clearer yesterday, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Prepare for higher prices for meat, longer waits at the airport, and fewer kids in Head Start. Those are some of the consequences outlined by Obama administration officials yesterday during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. As they made clear, cutting government spending by five percent for domestic programs and eight percent for the Pentagon won't be easy or painless.

Take Head Start, the popular preschool program for low-income kids. President Obama proposed expanding it in his State of the Union message. But Education Secretary Arne Duncan testified, under sequestration he'll be forced to kick out, as he put it, some 70,000 children.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: Doing that to our most vulnerable children is educational malpractice, economically foolish, and morally indefensible.

NAYLOR: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the committee her department will have to temporarily lay off or furlough thousands of employees, including Border Patrol agents, airport screeners and customs agents.

SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: Furloughs of transportation security officers will increase domestic passenger wait times at our busiest airports by more than one hour. On the Southwest border, our biggest land ports could face waits of five hours or more, functionally closing these ports during core hours.

NAYLOR: Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told senators the wolf is at the door. Not only will military training and maintenance be curtailed. The Defense Department will also have to furlough thousands of civilian employees, not just at the Pentagon.

ASHTON CARTER: Most of them work in depots. They fix airplanes. They maintain ships and overhaul ships. Eighty-six percent of them don't even live in the Washington area. Forty-four percent of them are veterans.

NAYLOR: Other employees facing furlough are USDA food inspectors. Meat processing plants are forbidden to operate without inspectors on hand. That means billions of pounds of meat, poultry and egg products won't get processed, which Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor said will have wide ranging effects.

SENATOR MARK PRYOR: And what it will do is it will drive the price up. So this is going to adversely affect every consumer in America. It's going to be very disruptive to our food supply and the chain that we have here in this country. The bottom line is, this bad for the U.S. economy.

NAYLOR: Senators from both parties decried the effects of the cutbacks, though they offered few ideas on preventing them. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin said the problem wasn't too much spending, but a misallocation of wealth.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: I think it's very interesting that all of this talk we about sequester talks about the programs that hit the hardest on the homeless and the helpless, the disabled, and yes, also on the middle-class.

NAYLOR: Maine Republican Susan Collins countered there was indeed a spending problem. Still, she said, the across-the-board spending cuts couldn't be allowed to take effect.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS REPUBLICAN, MAINE: If we do so, we might as well just pack up and go home. Because if we're just going to have across-the-board cuts, what is the point of our being here?

NAYLOR: If there was any good news out of the Senate hearing, it was that the sequester effects won't be fully felt immediately on March 1. Agencies have to work out details of furloughs with public employee unions. And there is likely to be some last minute maneuvering in Congress to avoid the cuts, or perhaps put them off until the end of March. That's a deadline Congress has to meet to avoid a complete government shutdown.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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