Review shows sequestration not living up to Obama's alarms

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WASHINGTON -- Before "sequestration" took effect, the Obama administration issued specific -- and alarming -- predictions about what it would bring. There would be one-hour waits at airport security. Four-hour waits at border crossings. Prison guards would be furloughed for 12 days; FBI agents, up to 14.

At the Pentagon, the military health program would be unable to pay its bills. The mayhem would extend even into the pantries of the neediest Americans: Around the country, 600,000 low-income women and children would be denied federal food aid.

But none of those things happened.

Sequestration did hit, on March 1. And since then, the $85 billion budget cut has caused real reductions in many federal programs that people depend on. But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.

The Washington Post recently checked 48 of those dire predictions about sequestration's impact. Just 11 have come true, and some effects are worse than forecast. But 24 predictions have not come to pass. In 13 cases, agencies said it is too soon to know.

So many predictions fell short because, in recent months, the administration and Congress did what was supposed to be impossible: They undid many of sequestration's scariest reductions. In the process, this supposedly ironclad budget cut -- ostensibly immune to political maneuvering -- became a symbol that nothing in Washington is beyond politics.

In some cases, politicians transferred cuts from high-value programs to lower-value ones. Employee travel was limited. Maintenance deferred.

But in other cases, they found "cuts" that didn't cause much real-world pain. The Justice Department, for instance, prevented furloughs by "cutting" $300 million in money that had already legally expired, as well as $45 million meant to house detainees who didn't exist.

This is why the sky didn't fall. Sequestration was intended to show there was no longer any escape from austerity in Washington.

There was.

"The dog barked. But it didn't bite," said Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which pushes for fiscal responsibility in Washington. Mr. Bixby said he worries that this budget maneuvering will eventually backfire.

After all, sequestration is not finished, and another round of cuts is coming in October. "Next time you warn about those things, people just say, 'Yeah, sure,' and write it off as political hype," Mr. Bixby said. "There is that danger."

Sequestration had been drawn up as a "dumb" cut -- it would slash accounts at many federal agencies equally. There would be no gaming the system. No getting out.

It "won't consider whether we're cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day," President Barack Obama said Feb. 19, decrying sequestration as a "meat-cleaver approach." "It doesn't make those distinctions."

Now, however, it does.

The Post found enormous variation among the outcomes of those administration predictions. In 13 cases, the results were unclear. Almost four months after sequestration took effect, the agencies could not, or would not, say if their predictions were coming true.

In 11 cases, sequestration turned out to be as bad as advertised, or worse.

The Labor Department had predicted that emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed would be cut by 9.4 percent. But in some states, the reductions have been larger: 11 percent. For an individual, that could mean $450 less in benefits this year.

At the Pentagon, officials had predicted that they would reduce training for the Army, flying time for the Air Force and ship deployments for the Navy. They did all three. "It's extremely hard to show a degradation in our readiness, although we feel it deeply across the force," Pentagon spokeswoman Beth Robbins said.

Across the government, more than 125,000 employees have been furloughed from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service, and other agencies. About 650,000 Defense Department civilians will start taking 11 unpaid days next week. Public defenders are losing up to 15 days of pay.

In 24 cases, however, The Post's review showed that the predictions were wrong -- sequestration had not lived up to the administration's alarms.

That included some cases in which furloughs were threatened but then reduced or eliminated. Customs and Border Protection agents, for example, faced up to 14 unpaid days before the Department of Homeland Security shifted money around last month to avoid furloughs.

Administration officials say they didn't exaggerate sequestration's effects on purpose. They believed it would be that bad. But then they got unexpected help from Capitol Hill.

"Subsequent to those estimates, Congress took action that changed a number of things," an administration official said. The official was made available by the administration on the condition that the official speak anonymously.

So this is how politicians took the scare out of the sequester: In some cases, agencies dug into their budgets and found millions they could spare. In other cases, Congress passed a law that allocated new funds or shifted money around. In others, lawmakers signed off on an agency's proposal to "reprogram" its money.

In the process, the "meat cleaver" of sequestration often became a scalpel. It spared crucial programs but cut second-tier priorities such as maintenance, information technology, employee travel and scientific conferences.

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