Remember the sequester? When seven weeks ago the deadline to find a federal budget compromise came and went, there was much handwringing in Washington. In the event that no agreement was found there were to be cuts to public spending so severe and painful that no one would dare fail to agree. To deter Republicans from holding out, half the immediate spending savings of $85.4 billion was to be found from the defense budget, and, to ensure Democrats would work to find a deal, half from annually funded federal programs. Despite these encouragements to fiscal discipline, the March 1 deadline came and went.
For weeks the word “sequestration” was used so often that commentators and their readers grew sick of it. The headlines moved on. But quietly, without making much news, implementation is well under way and proving just as dire and destructive as advertised. It is hard to fully comprehend the impact of death by a thousand cuts and where they fall. This week the sequester broke surface when it began affecting air travel, causing long delays at airports, which is to be expected when you send 1,500 air traffic controllers home without pay. One in 10 controllers will stay at home on unpaid leave every day until October. With the vacation season looming, crowded airports full of frustrated passengers will become commonplace.
Many cuts have an impact less obvious than gumming up airports. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which relies upon federal sources for 86 percent of its research, is losing $7 million between now and September, while the University of Pittsburgh will lose $26 million, mostly from health research. All other research universities tell a similar story. This fiscal year the National Institutes of Health, the largest federal funding agency for many schools, like the University of Minnesota, is spending $1.5 billion less on research.
Postponing medical research sounds victimless, but it is not if you are among those helped when a new drug comes onstream. It is impossible to list those who will miss new treatments by a year or so but will continue suffering, or even die, as a consequence of the delay. More easy to picture are the thousands of cancer patients being turned away from hospitals because of the cuts. For a cancer center on Long Island, that means not administering the most expensive drugs and telling one-third of its 16,000 patients on Medicare it will no longer treat them.
Air traffic controllers are not the only federal employees being told to take the week off. Staff at the Smithsonian in Washington, which has lost $40 million of its federal grant, and at the National Zoo have followed suit. Managers at the oo stress that the animals will be unaffected, as well as the number of exhibitions, but staff vacancies will not be filled. One rare cut to raise a laugh was that IRS workers are also having to take unpaid leave. Funny, that is, until you realize that one of the reasons for the furlough and the public spending deficit is that not enough Americans paid the taxes they owe.