Washington — Congress is playing chicken with the federal budget again, and the results could have a broad impact across the country.
Some of those affected will be air travelers, students, low-income mothers with young children, university researchers and defense industry workers.
On March 1 — a week from tomorrow — $85 billion in automatic spending cuts will be imposed on the federal budget unless Congress finds another way to shrink the deficit. The automatic cuts are known as “sequestration.”
The across-the-board reductions, half to domestic programs and half to defense, will affect nearly every federal agency — and all who rely on federal programs.
Only the so-called “entitlement” programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, are exempt, as is federal highway money.
Yale University, which received more than $550 million in federal grants last year, mostly for research, is bracing for sequestration.
Yale President-elect Peter Salovey said, it “poses historic risks for science and engineering.”
“Unless Congress finds a compromise to avert the cuts, the crippling impact could last a generation,” Salovey said earlier this month at an event to honor U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, for her support of research programs.
Other colleges, including the University of Connecticut, will also have to make do with less money from Washington, as will many state residents who depend on federal social programs.
Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said sequestration would cut 3,900 women and children from the Women, Children and Infants nutrition program that subsidizes their food.
Nolan also said the state’s Head Start preschool programs would lose about $3 million.
“That means that fewer kids will be getting Head Start, and many kids get their nutrition from Head Start,” Nolan said.
In the past few days, Republicans and Democrats have been finger-pointing instead of negotiating, blaming each other for the impending blow to the federal budget.
The concept of sequestration was devised when Congress raised the debt ceiling in 2011. It was thought to be so horrible, it would force lawmakers to make tough choices on the budget.
“Sequestration was meant to be so irrational and harmful that it would not be permitted to happen,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The strategy has seemed to fail, though, as Congress moved the original deadline for sequestration from Dec. 31 to March 1 and, there’s still no deal.
Cabinet members and federal agency heads testified at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the impact of sequestration last week.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said states would lose millions of dollars in grants to high-poverty schools and to teach disabled children. Duncan said cities and states would have to pay the salaries of 10,000 teachers in high-poverty schools who are paid under the federal Title I program and 7,900 teachers and aides who teach disabled children now.
Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said the Federal Aviation Administration is the agency under his control that would be most severely impacted, with its 47,000 workers furloughed, or on unpaid leave, for at least one day per pay period.
“The furlough of a large number of air traffic controllers and technicians will require a reduction of air traffic to a level that can be safely managed by the remaining staff,” LaHood said.
Even the FBI weighed in, saying sequestration would result in the elimination of 2,285 positions and 775 agents and slow investigative work, including the background checks conducted on gun purchasers.
In Connecticut: Cuts and layoffs
Ben Barnes, secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, said he’s glad the two largest sources of federal money for the state, Medicaid and transportation funding, have been roped off from sequestration.
But millions of dollars in block grants to social programs are at stake, Barnes said, including substance abuse program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.
“We would have to curtail those programs,” Barnes said.
Connecticut receives $100 million a year in block grants.
Another area that sequestration could have hit hard is heating assistance for low-income residents. But the state has received all money due from the federal government for this winter, Barnes said.
Yet there would be a “huge impact” on state revenues if Connecticut’s defense contractors lay off workers because of the Pentagon’s cuts, Barnes said. That’s because less money would be paid in individual and corporate taxes.
There’s some uncertainty on how quickly the sequester cuts would be felt. The impact could occur in weeks for some programs, while for others it might take months
“It’s difficult to say yet how the university would be affected because so many factors would be in play,” said University of Connecticut spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz. “For instance, some federal agencies may maintain the current funding for grants already promised while reducing future grant programs. Others might make more immediate change.”
Nevertheless, Reitz said, “like others who receive federal grants, UConn is watching the sequester issue closely and hoping it’s resolved in coming days.”
If Congress is unable to avoid sequestration, many who rely on the federal programs hope lawmakers vote to reverse it before much harm is done to them.
Blumenthal still has hopes sequestration can be avoided.
“I will not accept the inevitability of this event,” he said.