WASHINGTON -- The $85 billion in federal budget cuts called the sequester, which some warned would shake the nation like an earthquake, seems like a series of isolated tremors that are easily overlooked but still destabilizing.
Taken as a whole, the impact of the mandated across-the-board cuts “so far has been really teeny,” said Barry Anderson, the deputy director of the National Governors Association. The U.S. economy is showing signs of improvement, with housing prices up, gasoline prices down and April’s 7.5 percent unemployment rate the lowest in four years.
But as the sequester continues, more Americans are learning that even the teeniest change in Washington spending can have a big impact on their lives. From furloughed workers to shuttered federal offices to canceled White House tours and lighter entitlement checks, the reality of the sequester is hitting home.
“Clearly, sequester was overhyped, in the sense that the impression was given that all the bad things would happen immediately, and that was not the case,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget-watchdog group. “There have been some real-world furloughs, and that does have a negative impact. The question is whether those have had consequences.”
A growing number of people think so. A May ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 37 percent of Americans think they’ve been adversely affected by federal budget cuts, up from 25 percent in a March poll. Half of the negatively affected respondents in both surveys described the impact on them as major.
The country got a collective taste of sequestration’s reach in April, when the furloughs of air traffic controllers left airport towers understaffed and triggered major flight delays. Complaints from passengers, airlines and the tourism industry spurred Congress to pass a bill that allowed the Department of Transportation to transfer as much as $253 million from other parts of the agency to keep airport towers sufficiently staffed.
“Everyone wants to know what’s the next big, splashy (budget cut) thing that happens,” said Sharon Parrott, the vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “There are example and stories across the country, but because there are so many cuts in so many places it’s hard to sort through.”
Many aren’t hard to find. The Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were closed May 24, their employees among the 125,000 federal workers furloughed without pay for at least a day. IRS offices will be closed again on July 5, July 22 and Aug. 30 because of the cuts.
Nearly 2 million long-term unemployed Americans will see less money in their unemployment checks. All but seven states already have imposed the cuts, which range from 10.7 percent in places such as Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and Pennsylvania to 23 percent in Wyoming, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group.
In addition, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Maine have reduced the number of weeks residents can receive the emergency payments.
“There’s nothing overhyped here if this is what you’re living off of,” said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.