Read President Barack Obama's state-by-state breakdown of the sequester and you get a dire message: The sky is going to fall on March 1.
But a closer read of the detailed reports shows that some of the scariest stuff is going to happen in slow motion -- if it happens at all.
That's not to say that anyone thinks the sequester is good policy or that it will be harmless. But the dramatic predictions about long lines at airports and the loss of special education funding involve some large assumptions.
Here is POLITICO's guide to evaluating the warnings in the White House sequester reports.
They're never going to fix the sequester?
The state-by-state reports are full of scary numbers about funding cuts for schools, defense, public health, law enforcement and social services -- any of which could be true if Congress and Obama fail to act this week, next month -- or ever.
So the scenarios described by Obama -- "thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off" or "hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings" -- are the worst-case scenario.
Even Washington skeptics expect the sequester to soften eventually, even if the cuts take effect.
On Monday morning, for example, POLITICO Playbook broke news that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner may retroactively give agencies wiggle room in a spending bill due at the end of March, which could make cuts to important programs potentially easier to handle.
So while Obama's numbers add up under the current stalemate, the picture could improve if a deal is reached -- even after the fact.
They really do have some time
Some of the most dire White House predictions are about education funding -- like the deep cuts in aid for disadvantaged kids that could hurt 2,700 schools and 1.2 million students. And states could face the loss of federal special-education funding for 7,200 teachers and staff members who teach children with disabilities, according to the reports.
There's just one thing the White House doesn't mention: Those cuts wouldn't actually kick in until the next school year.
That's because those two programs -- Title I aid to disadvantaged students and special-education aid under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- are funded in advance, so they're already covered for this school year.
As Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month, "the hardship will be concentrated in the 2013-2014 school year" because of the way the programs are funded.
School districts won't be able to wait that long to plan for the possible cuts -- Duncan's letter says they'll have to start making teacher hiring decisions in April and May.
But it does buy Obama and Congress at least a bit of time to negotiate a deal that could prevent the cuts.
A Department of Education official noted that "the forward funding doesn't mitigate the impact of the sequester cuts, it just delays it on the calendar" -- but added that the school districts do need to start planning ahead.
"It just means a lot more children will not get the kinds of services they need, and as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs," Duncan said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
And there are other education cuts that will kick in sooner. School districts with large numbers of students living on military bases, Indian lands or other federal properties will miss out on their share of the remaining $60 million of "Impact Aid" set to be distributed before the end of the school year. The cuts, Duncan said, could force districts to make "wrenching, mid-year adjustments," pushing staff out of jobs and delaying badly needed building maintenance.
But how could you tell?
Some of the airport delay stories in the White House reports are pretty specific -- and scary.
Because of cuts in funding for customs agents, the reports warn that waiting times could double for some people entering the United States at the major airports -- and that passengers at the biggest airports, like New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Chicago O'Hare, could face four-hour waits.
But regular check-in lines run by the Transportation Security Administration? That's a little more vague.
The White House just says the TSA's hiring freeze and furloughs would "substantially increase passenger wait times at airport security checkpoints."
Compared with what? The short lines airport passengers face now? At least when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated the warnings Monday about the customs agents, there's a yardstick to judge whether the cuts will really have such a severe impact. With regular airport lines, there may be no way to tell.
That's also going to be a problem with the Food and Drug Administration -- the White House warns that the agency's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research would face "delays in new drug approvals."
The catch is the agency isn't actually known for speed now -- drugmakers have been complaining about slow approval times for years. If the delays get slightly worse, the industry won't even have to make big changes to their talking points.
They're just estimates
In some cases, the Obama administration even admits that the numbers are just estimates.
For example, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration's estimate that 70,000 students would see their Head Start program shut down -- which first appeared in a Feb. 1 letter to Congress from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- should not be taken literally and serves as an estimate based on "historic funding levels."
"These impacts are derived from historic funding levels and the average cost per child served in these programs, and represent arithmetic estimates that depict the likely result of sequestration in FY 2013 across the universe of Head Start programs, as opposed to the definite impact to each individual Head Start program," Wolfe said.
The state-by-sate reports aren't crystal clear on the methodology, making it difficult to know how much leeway was taken with the estimates.
A White House spokeswoman referred questions about sequestration data to the Office of Management and Budget. OMB said its data came from each Cabinet agency, and those agencies had trouble specifying how they arrived at the specific numbers the White House presented.
As for defense cuts, some defense budget analysts and right-of-center think tanks are skeptical of whether predictions are accurate.
"You take a stream of assumption after assumption, multiply it by an assumption, divide it by an assumption," said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It's very hard to predict with any precision what this would be."
And don't ask congressional appropriations committee aides to fact-check the estimates -- they say the Obama administration's estimates are so general that they don't have enough to work with.
"We haven't received any non-press-release information from them as to what accounts will be cut, how much, specific percentages, etc. So it's impossible for us to confirm or dispute any of the information they are putting out," said Jennifer Hing, a GOP spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
Reid Epstein, Leigh Munsil, Jon Prior, Josh Gerstein, Jennifer Epstein, Seung Min Kim and Brett Norman contributed to this report.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 8:07 p.m. on February 25, 2013.
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