Even at 2.3%, sequester cuts can cause some pain
In theory, it shouldn’t be tough to trim 2.3 percent from the federal budget — the size of the sequesters, compared with the overall budget. But the way Congress and President Obama wrote the sequester cuts taking effect Friday means that some deep pain will be inevitable.
The cuts must come chiefly from discretionary spending, and Mr. Obama already ruled out touching troops’ salaries, meaning that most of the $3.6 trillion federal budget is off limits.
That leaves the White House facing the task of cutting $85.3 billion from a pool of money nearly $1 trillion in size, which means cuts of as much as 13 percent to defense programs under the ax, and 9 percent for most domestic programs subject to trimming.
What that means specifically is still an open question.
Already, some illegal immigrants have been released from detention centers — though the administration says they remain under supervision, either through electronic monitoring or by being required to check in regularly.
The administration has warned of shuttered national parks, fewer childhood vaccinations, teacher layoffs, beef shortages because food can’t be inspected, and more illegal immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border because Border Patrol agents will have to be furloughed.
“Families and businesses across this country are also bracing for the pain of deep cuts to programs that keep our food safe, our water clean and our borders secure,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
But Republicans said the spending levels will go back to what they were just a few years ago — and they argued that the government seemed to operate just fine.
“In 2009, was food not inspected?” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. “Did we have any Border Patrol agents in 2009? Of course we did. Of course we did. They will be funded at the same levels as under the sequester, and that’s our point.”
The Congressional Budget Office said that with the cuts, discretionary spending will drop to $1.213 trillion this year. That is lower than any other year in Mr. Obama’s tenure.
But the specifics contrast with some of Mr. Cantor’s calculations.
In 2008, the year before Mr. Obama took office, the Border Patrol averaged 17,499 agents, far fewer than the 21,394 agents employed in 2012. Analysts said the boost in agents has been responsible for a remarkable drop in the number of people trying to cross the border illegally.
Overall, the Homeland Security Department, which oversees immigration, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, will have its budget go from $46 billion in 2012 to $58.3 billion — though that jump is a result of emergency spending for Superstorm Sandy.
Without the aid for recovery from Sandy, the department will have about $43.9 billion to spend, according to Republicans — a drop of 4.7 percent.
The Coast Guard has warned that it will have to reduce rescue flights and sea patrols to accommodate the cuts.
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