Everyone who has access to a computer, TV, radio transmitter, or really just has one working ear has heard about the sequester. But now that the dust settled, its not entirely clear what happened.
What we know: the sequester happened. The self-imposed draconian budget cuts that were supposed to serve as a deterrent for Congress to allow bipartisan nonsense to continue and make them come to an agreement didn’t work. After months of being told the sequester was going to be the worst thing to happen to America since teenagers were allowed on Facebook, we are actually facing what is supposedly our worst nightmare.
What we don’t know: anything else. To anybody with the motivation and time to read the 83-page explanation of the sequester, more power to you. For the rest of us, read on for a thankfully brief explanation of the biggest sectors affected by the sequester and what it means in real numbers.
*Numbers are based on a White House estimate released in February.
The idea behind the sequester was to make drastic cuts to things that both sides of the aisle held dear; for Republicans, it’s the military. For Democrats, it’s everything else. Therefore, half of the sequester cuts affect discretionary defense spending – weapons purchases, base operations, construction work, and more – about $42.7 billion, or a 7.9 percent reduction in spending overall.
Approximately 800,000 Defense Department civilian employees will see a 20 percent salary cut and go on mandatory furlough one day a week. Navy vessels will decrease their time at sea by 30-35 percent, and the anticipated deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region will be cancelled. The number of subcontractors employed by the military will also decrease as maintenance budgets for bases and equipment take a big hit. While no military personnel will see their salaries take a hit, benefits such as tuition assistance and health care (a part of the TRICARE program for personnel and their families) are not exempt from cuts.
The hardest blow will be to teachers and preschool children – the decrease in federal aid to schools is the equivalent of the salaries for 10,000 teachers and 7,200 specialists for children with disabilities (special education will lose $840 million overall). Additionally, the Head Start program, a free preschool program for children ages 3-5 from low-income families, will be cut by approximately $406 million, eliminating space for 70,000 children and another 14,000 teaching positions.
Airport security will see a decrease of about $323 million, leading airports to lay off air traffic controllers, immigration officers, security personnel and more. TSA has plans to enact a hiring freeze, eliminate overtime, and furlough its 50,000 employees for up to seven days. In real world terms, this means security lines could grow longer and the wait time for immigration is estimated to grow by 30-50 percent (meaning up to four hours at major airports during peak hours).
$1.6 billion is scheduled to be slashed from the National Institutes of Health, $388 million from the National Science Foundation, and $433 million from global health programs (including the Millennium Challenge Corp, USAID, and other related programs). Federally funded scientists may be forced to halt research — some in chronic diseases and new treatments — and a slower approval process for new medicines could delay meds from getting to hospital shelves and patients.
For those who like their beef mad cow-free and their spinach sans the e. coli, beware the $206 million in cuts to the Food and Drug Administration. They may be forced to scale back by 2,100 inspections a year. This not only escalates the risk of food-borne illnesses, but will force slaughterhouses and other areas of the agriculture sector to slow down or halt work, costing millions of dollars.
The Department of the Interior, responsible for all of the country’s national parks, will see a big cut to their budgets. Safety workers will have to be furloughed and summer hiring will see a dramatic decrease, resulting in fewer camping sites and park trails. An estimated 128 of the U.S.’s 561 national wildlife refuges (22.8 percent) will be closed down, and all public visitation will be discontinued. Apologies to the gray wolf, Hawaiian monk seal and Louisiana black bear – you guys are on your own now!
Poor NASA will see another $970 million expunged from its budget, contributing to its slow but steady fall from its former Armstrong-era glory. Start explaining to your kids why they’ll never be able to be astronauts when they grow up (that’s only for Iranian monkeys now), and somebody is going to have to break the news to Newt Gingrich that his moon colony is probably out of the question.
The sequester marks another loss for student financial aid programs; over the last few years, $35 billion in student aid has already been eliminated. The latest move is expected to cut another 6 percent, eliminating major portions of financial aid for over 100,000 students, and reductions for millions more. While the Pell Grant program was exempted, fees on direct loans will go up and work-study options will be reduced – the federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs were cut by $89.5 million for 2013-14 alone, a 5.52 percent decrease. This may result in approximately 33,000 fewer work study awards and 71,000 fewer FSEOG grants.
As always, “entitlement” spending is a favorite to throw on the chopping block for budget cuts, with the notable exemptions of mandatory programs such as Medicaid, Social Security and some low-income programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (commonly known as welfare) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (or food stamps). Unemployment benefits will take a big hit. Medicare will see the biggest reduction, however, with $9.9 billion in cuts, or 2 percent, and programs such as aid for Women, Infants, and Children and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will see significant cuts.