The public would quickly feel the effects, from weaker drug interdiction efforts to less energy assistance for low-income families.
The Office of Management and Budget asked civilian and defense agencies this week for detailed what-if lists of what they would cut. But many managers have been quietly preparing worst-case plans for months, having grown painfully familiar with uncertainty after a near-government shutdown last year and a slew of stopgap budgets.
The federal courts, for example, would close some district courts one day a week, impose furloughs of up to four weeks and reduce the hours of security guards. The system would face a $555 million loss next year under an 8.2 percent cut to domestic agencies.
“We’ve all developed this master plan that nobody hopes we’ll have to enact,” said David Sellers, spokesman for the administrative office of the federal courts. A judicial committee began meeting shortly after the Budget Control Act was enacted in 2011 to decide where to cut, balancing furloughs with delayed trials.
“They’ve taken it very seriously and methodically,” Sellers said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured employees in November that no furloughs or layoffs are planned. Instead, to save money, outside contracts would be stretched out or stopped. The National Park Service has slowed some hiring for the tourist season, a strategy that advocates and former park officials said would have to continue in January.
The Defense Department is likely to impose an immediate hiring freeze on its civilian workforce, said a spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins. Some furlough notices, rather than layoffs, would begin within a few weeks, she said.
And public employee unions are dusting off their manuals on when to call for bargaining with management over unpaid furloughs, which would probably be forced on thousands of employees.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the fiscal cliff,” said Danette Woo, special park uses coordinator at the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, Calif. “What happens is totally out of our control, but it affects our ability to get our job done.”
Park managers have prepared a “budget constraint” plan that calls for layoffs of seasonal employees and program cuts, Woo said. Like other agencies, the Park Service in recent months has slowed hiring, travel and training.