Unless the White House and House Republicans strike a long-term budget deal in the next two weeks, across-the-board budget cuts of between 8 and 10 percent will cascade across government beginning Jan. 2.
Incredibly, no one knows.
That is because, until this month, the White House actively suppressed agencies’ efforts to plan for the event on the optimistic assertion that a deal will be struck in time and sequestration will never come to pass.
It’s widely recognized that sequestration will be ugly — about $109 billion will be arbitrarily sliced out of discretionary programs, a flat 9.4 percent across most defense accounts and 8.2 percent across most nondefense programs.
Still, few, if any, agencies know which employees they will lay off or furlough, and if furlough, for how long. Or which contracts they will shut down. Or which maintenance and upgrades will be deferred. At best, some agencies have a vague notion of how many employees they may need to furlough or lay off.
But none appears to know how those furloughs or layoffs will translate into lost capability or slowed projects or degraded mission effectiveness.
The potential fallout could mean not just pain for federal employees and agencies, but increased dangers for the public: The ranks of air traffic controllers could be thinned. Pharmaceutical drug testing could be delayed. Shortcuts might be taken in food inspections due to manpower shortages. Border security and law enforcement forces could be cut. Tax collections could suffer, as could military readiness.
Obviously, the potential for serious harm to the nation is both wide and deep as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner play out their public game of chicken over who will give on tax increases versus spending cuts. They appear far apart from closing a deal, and the clock is ticking.
It is past time for agencies to define exactly what sequestration will mean to their programs in the most detailed terms. Agency leaders must do that and put the stakes on the table: Who will be furloughed and for how long; who will be laid off; what projects will be delayed or postponed? Then they must spell out what those decisions would mean for Americans who rely on those government services.
With smart planning, some downstream consequences can be avoided or mitigated.
Federal workers and the American public deserve to be read in on the consequences of sequestration so they can let their elected leadership know what they will support and what they won’t.