Where's the Sequester? Agencies Skirt Spending Cuts

Some agencies have avoided or delayed the worst of it

April 1, 2013, 2:41 PM

April 2, 2013 -- A month after the dreaded "sequester" kicked in, the nation has yet to feel some of its most-feared effects.

The White House has gone mostly silent about the sequester, after President Obama and agency heads spent much of February warning of dire consequences if automatic spending cuts were allowed to happen. But in a few select cases, agencies have managed to sidestep or delay some of the sequester's across-the-board budgetary pain.

They can thank Congress for some of the leeway.

READ MORE: What is Sequestration? D.C.'s Weird Idea of Cuts

Last Tuesday, President Obama signed a measure to keep the federal government funded through September 30, and it included provisions to cover over one of the sequester's more sensational pitfalls.

The nation will avoid a meat shortage, for instance, because Congress supplied $55 million in new money to UDSA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had warned Congress and a skeptical meat industry that, without congressional action, furloughs to inspectors would force meat and poultry producers to shut down. Without anyone to inspect their products, as required by law, livestock couldn't be slaughtered.

But Congress responded to the lobbying effort with funding that will prevent furloughs, USDA confirmed to ABC News.

Despite warnings of prison lockdowns and possible inmate violence, prisons will remain fully staffed.

READ MORE: Start of Sequester Foresees Harm Beyond Staff Cuts

Before the sequester took effect March 1, Attorney General Eric Holder predicted in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee that it would mean furloughs to Bureau of Prisons staff, adding that he was "acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should cuts of the sequestration's magnitude hit BOP." With fewer corrections officers, prison safety might be compromised.

But the furloughs won't happen, after all. Holder used his "limited authority" to transfer $150 million of Justice Department money to BOP, he wrote to employees last month in a memo obtained by ABC News.

Furloughs to FBI agents were supposed to weaken U.S. defenses against terrorist cells, and furloughs to U.S. attorneys were supposed to cut criminal prosecutions by thousands - but those have been delayed. Holder announced in a separate memo that he will delay all decisions about furloughs until mid-April.

Cuts to Customs and Border Patrol were supposed to mean a more porous border with fewer agents guarding it. But CBP, too, has delayed furloughs, meaning border agents will stay on the job.

Congress and the new government-funding measure, again, get credit.

After the new funding measure, agencies will have until late April to craft new plans to implement sequester cuts.

"Although the budget reductions imposed by sequestration are significant, the bill's provisions allow CBP to mitigate to some degree the impacts of the reduced budget on operations and on CBP's workforce," Thomas S. Winkowski, CBP's deputy commissioner, wrote in a memo to employees on Monday, Univisoin reported.

All this amounts to a deferred impact. Some of the worst consequences were slated to begin in April, as furloughs to government workers cannot happen until 30 days after agencies notify their employees. At DoJ, for instance, those notices have not yet gone out. Where agency heads once said they had no flexibility to avoid the worst of the sequester's calamities, they've found it with some help from Congress.

"Sequestration has been applied unevenly in different agencies. Some places are dealing with significant budget reductions while others have been spared or have deferred the pain. The whole process shows that how hard it is for Congress to slow spending given the creativity of agency heads and the power of external constituencies," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

"Those offices that had creative leaders or powerful allies avoided much of the budget pain. It is very difficult to cut government even when there are across-the-board reductions," West said.

READ MORE: Obama Golfs for First Time Since Sequester Cuts

But the sequester hasn't gone away. Nothing has been done to prevent cuts to unemployment benefits, Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals, or a laundry list of federal grants and spending programs that the sequester has trimmed.

There's still some worry and political action surrounding its effects. After a push to highlight budget issues by Organizing for Action, the group that represents the vestiges of Obama's campaign, a Virginia chapter held a "Stop Our Sequester Bake Sale" to raise awareness of education cuts.

"We were hoping it would get a little news media coverage, and we were hoping that it would get people thinking about the sequester that weren't really aware of it. And it would be an opportunity to share with the local community what the impact was," said Albemarle County Supervisor Sally Thomas, who helped organize the event on Saturday.

READ MORE: Foundation to Cover Sequester Cuts to Iraq, Afghanistan Scholarships

"It also was going to be the means for getting we hoped some people to telephone their congressmen," Thomas said. "Each of the baggies of cookies had a little label on it that gave them the telephone numbers for our two senators and for our congressman, Mr. Hurt, and a short message about, asking them to get rid of this sequester."

Rep. Robert Hurt is a Republican, but Virginia's two Senators - Mark Warner and Tim Kaine - are Democrats. Both have spoken out against sequestration already.

The event took place in downtown Charlottesville at the Freedom of Speech Wall, where Thomas and others scrawled anti-sequester messages on the slate behind the table full of baked goods.

Thomas acknowledged that in some cases, it could be tough to see the sequester's effects, even as the cuts are implemented.

"When you cut a federal program sometimes the effect doesn't happen for a while," Thomas said.

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