The $85 billion in across-the-board cuts set to go into effect on March 1st will cause widespread damage to government operations and have dire economic effects, according to statements by the Office of Management and Budget and federal agency heads.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Department of Defense leaders have been warning for some time about the devastating effects sequestration will have on defense capabilities.  Last week, Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter (testifying before Congress along with senior military leaders) reiterated that message.  Carter said sequestration “would create an immediate crisis in military readiness” resulting from an 8 percent cut to all DoD programs, except military personnel.  And, Secretary Panetta this week announced that DoD would begin issuing furlough notices to up to 800,000 civilian employees if sequestration is triggered.

With the March 1 trigger-date for sequestration fast approaching, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and nondefense agency leaders have also stepped up their warnings of impending widespread damage to government operations.  Furloughs are expected to be implemented throughout nondefense agencies, although plans would differ from agency to agency.

OMB released a fact sheet describing what it called “the most damaging effects of a sequester” on nondefense government activities.  These effects include the removal of 70,000 kids from the Head Start program, possible loss of 10,000 teaching jobs, 2,100 fewer food inspections, the loss of treatment for as many as 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults, and a reduction in reduced law enforcement staffing and prosecution. 

Federal research entities, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, would be forced to halt or delay vital research, according to OMB.  Services to the public would be curtailed ranging from reduced service hours at Social Security Administration offices to the delivery of four million fewer meals to seniors by the Wheels on Meals program.

These concerns were underscored by DOD Controller Daniel Werfel and several agency heads at a hearing held by the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) last week.  Committee chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) had asked federal agency heads to describe the possible impact on agency operations resulting from the automatic across-the-board cuts.  She received letters from about 20 separate departments and agencies.

At the hearing, Werfel told the committee nondefense agencies’ FY2013 program funding would be cut by 5 percent under sequestration.  Agencies would have to take “significant and painful steps to implement sequestration,” he said.  This would mean “fewer teachers to educate our children, less funding for schools to help disadvantaged students or children with disabilities, and less research into life-threatening diseases.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told senators that sequestration would mean longer lines and wait times for travelers at airports and decreased border security efforts. She warned that the across-the-board cuts would “leave critical infrastructure more vulnerable to attacks, hamper disaster response time and our surge force capabilities, and significantly delay cyber security infrastructure protections.”

Napolitano also said the automatic cuts would force the Coast Guard “to curtail air and surface operations by more than 25 percent, adversely affecting maritime safety and security across nearly all mission areas.”  The Coast Guard would also have to defer ongoing maintenance and training, which would have “serious consequences for the Coast Guard’s future force readiness and mission effectiveness.”

All federal agencies are putting plans in place to mitigate the effect of sequestration.  But, Werfel warned that the time taken to prepare these plans is having “disruptive effects and anxiety” employees, contractors, and families.  And he said, implementing these plans cannot “mitigate the significant and highly destructive impacts that sequestration would have.”