The Sky is Falling! Maybe, but it really shouldn’t be.
The Obama administration’s list of what will happen if upcoming spending cuts go into effect is downright terrifying. In recent days, officials have warned of more forest fires, workplace deaths and, heaven-forbid — chicken shortages.
And today the White House brought out Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to warn of big air travel delays across the country as air traffic controllers are forced off the job because of budget cuts.
LaHood even suggested that some smaller airports – he specifically mentioned the airport at golfing paradise Hilton Head, S.C. — might have to reduce hours of operation or even temporarily close. That should catch the eye of avid golfer and Speaker of the House John Boehner.
There’s no doubt that the automatic spending cuts set to go into effect on March 1 will cause some real pain and many economists believe they would hurt the economy. But all the dire warnings give the impression the cuts are much larger than they actually are.
Take today’s White House example: The Department of Transportation.
The Department of Transportation’s budget for 2013 is $74.2 billion. The automatic spending cuts would slice $1 billion out of its budget: that is a cut of less than 1.4 percent.
And consider this: even if the cuts go into effect, the Department of Transportation will spend more money this year ($73.2 billion) than it spent last year ($72.6 billion).
The administration is saying that the Department of Transportation cannot squeeze 1.4 percent of its budget without sending air traffic controllers home and that they cannot find a way to operate effectively this year with a budget that is actually larger than the budget they had last year.
That may be true, but it raises larger questions about the government’s ability to find relatively modest savings without cutting essential services.
I asked Secretary LaHood about this at today’s White House briefing:
KARL: Can’t you find some other way to cut without telling air traffic controllers to stay home?
LAHOOD: This has to be a part of it. DOT has 55,000 employees. The largest number of those employees are at the FAA, and the largest number of those employees are controllers, and they’re all over the country. There has to be some impact in order to save a billion dollars. A billion dollars is a lot of money.
KARL: Let’s be clear: It’s less than 2 percent of your budget.
LAHOOD: It’s a lot of money, Jonathan.
Another fact lost amidst all the dire warnings is that although the cuts go into effect on March 1, most of the impact won’t be felt until weeks or even months after that.
Here’s why: On March 1, the federal government will give employees 30 days notice that they may have to take unpaid leave (furlough). That means the first furloughs cannot happen until March 31 at the earliest. For employees of the Department of Transportation, the most they will be asked to take is one unpaid day off every two weeks.
At the White House today, Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted the administration is not exaggerating when it warns of more forest fires, chicken shortages and long air travel delays.
“I think all of those things come from reduced, you know, numbers of people fighting fires, you know, reduced numbers of people doing inspections of our food, reduced numbers of people, you know, engaging in air traffic control,” Carney said. “I mean, those are just the facts.”
For more warnings to keep you up at night, take a look at the list of the Administration’s 57 Terrible Consequences of the spending cuts compiled by ABC News’ Chris Good.