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Agencies Continue To Identify Fallout From Sequestration


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Well, now that summer is officially here, we thought this might be a good time to check in with some of our colleagues to find out how the federal budget cuts known as sequestration are playing out. These cuts went into effect in the spring, and it is becoming clear that some federal agencies and programs are feeling the brunt, while others have largely escaped.

Joining us this morning, we have quite a roundtable: NPR Washington correspondent Brian Naylor, NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers poverty. Our Pentagon Correspondent is to my left, Larry Abramson. And joining us from the Capitol, Congressional Correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning to all of you.


GREENE: And Brian, I want to begin with you, if you can kind of give us the broad picture. How is the sequester playing out so far?

NAYLOR: Well, nothing says summer like sequester. And...


GREENE: I guess that's true.

NAYLOR: ...you know, it's playing out. I think people will start to see some things this summer, for instance, going to the national parks. There will be fewer interpretive kinds of tours of battlefields and of various monuments. The grass might not be cut as often as is the norm. And other agencies are suffering furlough days. The IRS, Department of Housing, the EPA have all actually shut down their entire agencies for a day already, and they'll do several more this summer.

Others, though, are kind of more on the winning side of things. Most agencies that have anything to do with border security, border patrol, the TSA, all of those folks have been able to avoid having any furloughs.

GREENE: People who are responsible for protecting security, those kinds of jobs.

NAYLOR: Exactly. But the government is still - a lot of these agencies are still trying to figure out how to muddle through this. I talked to Scott Lilly, who is the former director of the House Appropriations Committee at the Center for American Progress. And he says, you know, other agencies are feeling the pinch. He points especially to the forest service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture.

SCOTT LILLY: We've had a 500-person reduction in firefighters in what looks like one of the worst seasons ever. And so you have to wonder how much of the damage that's occurring right now might've been prevented had we had the number of firefighters we normally have.

NAYLOR: And the other thing is that the contractors who work for these agencies, many of them have really been hit hard, have lost their contracts, have had to lay off workers. But that kind of is under the radar.

GREENE: Pam Fessler, let me turn to you. You cover a lot of non-profit agencies and charities, and I guess I wonder what the impact has been, both on those places themselves, but also the people who are served by them.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: That's right, because a lot of them get money from the government, from government programs. And they feel like, basically, they're getting squeezed from all sides. All these cuts are coming at a time when demand for services is still very high, despite the economic recovery. And this is also after years, several years, of state and local budget cuts.

For example, we heard a lot before the sequester went into effect about Meals on Wheels. There's been a $51 million cut in senior nutrition programs. Well, Meals on Wheels now says about a majority of their programs have had to reduce the number of meals that they're serving seniors. They've had to cut back on staff. They are increasing their waiting lists.

I spoke with this woman, Linda Strohl. She heads Meals on Wheels in southwest Michigan. She says they now only deliver meals four days a week instead of five days a week. She said they recently had a 98-year-old woman who came to them asking for help, and they had to put her on a waiting list.

GREENE: And, Pam, I guess I wonder, these charities, these programs you're talking about, I mean, are they looking elsewhere for money, if they feel like they're not getting enough from the government now?

FESSLER: Well, they are trying to get more private donations, but even those are limited. And also, a lot of these programs are not just charities. They're government programs, like public housing. And we've been hearing a lot, like, say, public housing authorities across the country say they've actually had to stop issuing new vouchers to low income families. I talked to several families who had been on waiting lists for years waiting for vouchers.

They were promised vouchers earlier this year, and then they were taken away because of sequestration. Now, some of these people are homeless. I spoke with one woman in Connecticut, young woman just had a baby. She was one of these people, and she's now living in her brother's basement.

GREENE: Hmm. Larry Abramson, let me turn to the Defense Department and the Pentagon. This is an agency that wasn't used to budget cuts. But what's happened there?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: That's right. That's right. Well, now they're having to look for areas they can cut, because they're not allowed to go into what are called personnel accounts. They can't cut the substantial benefits that members of the armed forces get, and they also can't...

GREENE: Why is that off limits?

ABRAMSON: Because the president signed a law, a directive that says that they can't, and they also can't shrink the size of the force if they want to. So one thing that they're doing is a huge number of furloughs. There's going to be 11 furlough days for about 700,000 civilian workers in the Pentagon, and that only starts in July. So that means you're basically going to have four-day weeks for the rest of the summer.

And they're also taking a big bite out of training, because that's an area that they can cut. But that's really eating into what the military calls readiness. Basically, readiness to fight is not what it should be.

GREENE: And I gather the Blue Angels, other flying teams that we often see appearing over the summer, some of those events are not going to be happening.

ABRAMSON: That's right. The Blue Angels canceled their entire season. The Air Force's Thunderbirds also canceled the rest of their season. Fleet Week in New York City was canceled and that takes away a lot of money from vendors and people like that who make money off of attendance there. The public notices these things, but less conspicuous is the fact that 13 air squadrons are idle.

That's 250 planes that are not practicing, not flying. Those pilots will eventually become decertified and will have to train up again before they can fly. And the military says if sequestration continues into next year we're going to have to look for other ways to cut and maybe idle more planes.

GREENE: Tamara Keith, you're at the Capitol. Are lawmakers paying attention to sort of what's going on? How this has trickled down? What programs are being affected, what programs are not being affected?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I think some lawmakers are paying attention, but this is not front of mind here on Capitol Hill. I have to say that in some ways this is like a phantom sequester. There isn't enough public outcry to create the political will to do anything about this. I spoke to one high ranking Democrat who said that they're hoping, maybe, that once the defense furloughs of civilians start, maybe that would light a fire.

But there isn't much of a sense that that actually would light a fire. The political pressure just isn't there. And much like with the stimulus where the White House was saying, well, it could've been worse, now folks are saying, well, things could be better. They could've been better without the sequester. But that's sort of a hard pitch to make.

GREENE: The argument that things could've been better without it, but now we're, sort of - we're all living with it.

KEITH: It's the new normal.

GREENE: And is that the approach that Congress is taking? They're already starting to work on the budget for the next fiscal year. They're sort of saying this is the new normal? We're not going to try to, sort of, change anything?

KEITH: I have to say the budget process here is pretty thoroughly broken.


KEITH: And part of that means that we have the House working on its own appropriations bills, the Senate working on its own appropriations bills, and these are the bills that would actually spend the money. It's pretty clear they're never going to come together and make those bills a reality.

So we're in a little bit of a fantasy world. And in this fantasy world, the House is taking money and restoring it to defense and cutting it from other parts of the budget but keeping the sequester levels the same. And on the Senate side, they're just ignoring the sequester. What's most likely to actually happen, is what's called a continuing resolution.

Basically pushing the funding levels from before, forward for another six months or another year. And that would lock in the sequester and truly make it the new normal.

GREENE: Brian Naylor, let me come back to you. Just listening to Tam there it sounds like a lot of what she's saying might be imaginary - talk about increasing budgets for agencies and programs but then we might just see continuing resolution that will just lock sequestration in place. Are agencies ready for that? Are they ready for more cuts?

NAYLOR: I think there is a concern on the part of many of these agencies, that is, as Tam says, this is the new normal, that this is the new baseline. These reduced funding levels are going to be written into permanent law, not just a temporary budget cut. And so, you know, I don't think anybody really wants to face that right now, but I think there is a realization that this is probably the reality that they're going to face for the next several years.

GREENE: NPR's Brian Naylor. We also heard from NPR's Tamara Keith at the Capitol, and from Larry Abramson and Pam Fessler who are also here with me in the studio. Thank you all.

KEITH: You're welcome.

NAYLOR: Thank you.

FESSLER: Thanks.


GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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