Here's the good news for the first day of the sequester: The world won't end.
For all the hype, spin and blame exchanged over the across-the-board cuts, the reality is they don't mean the sudden economic collapse of America. So it's understandable that Main Street hasn't been tuning into this distinctly Not-Made-for-TV crisis: Polls show Americans aren't paying close attention to the fight even though a slight majority says sequestration will hurt the economy.
But tell that to the people who will be affected. More than 1 million federal employees could get furlough notices. Programs for the poor could be cut. Fishermen from California to Alaska could miss the start of halibut season on March 23.
President Barack Obama will meet with House and Senate leaders Friday morning, but nobody expects a last-minute solution. More likely -- a month of tense and complicated negotiations with Congress and the White House trying to address the $85 billion in domestic cuts at the same time they try to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year before money runs out March 27.
And if the cuts aren't addressed? There's more pain for everyone: Furlough notices could turn into office closures, federal tax returns could take longer to process and hurricane season could see fewer forecasters tracking storms.
"It won't be like a shutdown, where it's like turning off the light switch," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at the White House on Monday. "But all I can say for folks is these are the effects that will accrue."
Many of the agencies contacted by POLITICO this week said they still don't know for sure when exactly the cuts will ripple through their ranks. But here's a look ahead at what to expect:
Sequestration officially starts Friday -- most likely at 11:59 p.m., though Obama could act sooner -- when the Office of Management and Budget issues a notice ordering agencies to make cuts of about 9 percent for most nondefense programs and about 13 percent for defense programs.
OMB will simultaneously transmit a report to Congress with those same details.
"That's an important symbolic moment," said OMB Controller Danny Werfel. "The reality is I think it becomes extraordinarily problematic and serious once we hit March 1 because then it's real and then a lot of these things come to fruition in a much more exponential way."
Negotiations between agencies and union officials -- already ongoing -- will reach fever pitch Friday ahead of the release of the agency furlough notices. Talks center on how the furloughs will be implemented, who's covered, mandatory days off around holidays and whether to go in phases over the next seven months so budget officials can re-evaluate whether more or less time off is needed.
Programs that dole out funding as an intermediary -- like public rent assistance, farm loans and food programs -- will see immediate cuts. The same goes for the Farm Service Agency's loans, particularly those for small, family-owned farms, which face a cut of $5.4 million, resulting in 890 fewer direct farm aid loans.
Hiring freezes -- used by some agencies to avert furloughs -- will also go into effect, including at the Government Accountability Office, where this will be the third year of the policy. Eliminating hiring will bring GAO's payroll to below 2,900 -- the lowest level since the 1930s, according to agency spokesman Chuck Young. If it receives a directive from OMB to make even deeper cuts, Young said, then the office will move to furloughs as "a last resort."
Monday, the bulk of the furlough notices will start going out.
How many days employees will be told to stay home will vary by department, but some preliminary estimates include 12 furlough days at the Bureau of Prisons, 13 at the Environmental Protection Agency and 15 at the Agriculture Department. Forced days off will mean cuts in annual pay of about 10 percent.
Uniformed military personnel as well as employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Postal Service are exempt from the furloughs.
Major defense contractors are likely to go public with their own layoff notices in March, at a much larger rate than some of the decisions they've already made based solely on the threat of the looming cuts.
States dependent on federal grants will most likely get word by next week about what's happening to their money for the rest of the fiscal year. It's not going to be good news for those dependent on Education Title I grants, Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program, EPA clean water grants and grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Commercial fishermen won't like the news coming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has warned that the budget cuts to its at-sea observers and fishery stock assessments could impede the opening of commercial fishing seasons in federal waters. Among the most high profile species: halibut season in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, which is scheduled to begin March 23.
At the Department of Education, $60 million will be cut from the Impact Aid program, which covers districts without large property tax bases, including students who live on military bases and Indian lands.
Teacher layoffs, changes to after-school programs and slicing off days for the 2013-14 school year also will start happening in March, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Wednesday. "Every school district, every superintendent worth their salt, every school board, they're making their budgets now in the spring for the fall," he said, adding that the pink slips will start coming in force from March to May.
The Agriculture Department's programs for the poor also will see cuts in March, including the Women, Infants and Children program, which must cut its rolls by about 300,000 participants. Case workers will begin placing some who apply on a wait list, particularly those who are homeless or are non-breastfeeding mothers.
Fire season kicks in by mid-March, with the immediate budget cuts putting the Forest Service in a precarious place as it comes off one of the worst years on record in 2012 with the third-highest number of acres burned in U.S. history. Prep work takes place all year, but the $1 billion budget will be hit immediately.
Economists say they'll be watching for signs of the sequester hit via a number of upcoming federal reports, starting with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis's March 29 data on personal income spending, with monthly follow-up reports coming after that. Another key study: the Bureau of Labor Statistics' job loss reports; the numbers on federal, state and local level are due April 5.
"Everything hits the fan on April 1," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic staff director to the House Appropriations Committee.
This is when the furlough notices start turning into reality, and when many of the Cabinet secretaries say the effects will become most obvious to the public.
Airport shutdowns and flight cancellations are expected to start in April as airlines digest the full effect of $644 million in cuts to air traffic controllers and other essential operations, according to testimony from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Smaller airports that use contract air traffic controllers will be among the first to see cutbacks. The FAA has a list of 240 air traffic control facilities that could be shut down come April, including in Boca Raton, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; Hilton Head, S.C.; and San Marcos, Texas.
Tax time is never fun, but April 15 could be even more of a slog as millions of Americans phoning the IRS for help with their returns don't get a call back. Refund checks are also likely to be sent out later than normal while tax cheaters face off against a depleted IRS enforcement team.
April is the earliest that USDA meat inspectors could begin their furloughs. And without inspectors, meat processing factories would be forced to close, potentially derailing 2 billion pounds of meat, 2.8 billion to 3.3 billion pounds of poultry and 200 million pounds of eggs. All U.S. meat and poultry production could stop for about two weeks.
Meat imports also will suffer as fewer inspectors man the ports, with an estimated 154 to 178 pounds of meat, poultry and eggs redirected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Consumers would be paying higher prices and see shortages.
"It very well could affect the ability to get a hamburger or a chicken leg at KFC," said Stan Painter, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Joint Council of Meat and Poultry Inspection Locals.
America's national parks will be in jeopardy of not opening and delivering the same level of services that visitors have grown accustomed to. For example, the budget cuts mean delays for snow removal at iconic Yellowstone National Park, which typically opens its roads and lodges in late April and early May.
May and beyond
May 1 may bring more angry fishermen. That's the start of the commercial groundfish season in New England. And that's followed by the start of red snapper season June 1 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane season's arrival on June 1 won't be welcome news for the National Hurricane Center, whose parent agency NOAA, is expecting 2,600 furloughed employees, 2,700 unfilled positions and 1,400 fewer contractors.
At NASA, delays or cancellations are possible for satellite launches and commercial flights that are slated to take Americans to the International Space Station near the end of the fiscal year. In a letter to Congress, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said his agency would need to be even more reliant on foreign providers to get to the station.
Manned commercial programs that are done on a contract basis and therefore might have payments delayed that would be affected include SpaceX Inflight Abort Test Review, the Boeing Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control Engine Development Test and the Sierra Nevada Corporation Integrated System Safety Analysis Review No. 2.
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