Sequester spin gets ahead of reality

INTERACTIVE: Breaking down the sequestration cuts, state-by-state.

The descriptions of the post-sequester landscape coming from the Obama administration have been alarming, specific — and, in at least some cases, hyped.

Take the claim by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that there are “literally teachers now who are getting pink slips.”

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You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters.

You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters.

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When he was pressed in a White House briefing Wednesday to name an example, Duncan came up with one school district, in West Virginia, and he acknowledged, “Whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know.”

As it turns out, it isn’t. What Kanawha County is actually doing is sending transfer notices to 104 educators in response to an unrelated change in the way federal dollars are allocated.

“It’s not like we’re cutting people’s jobs at this point,” said Pam Padon, who administers the county’s federal aid for poor students. “This is not due to sequestration.”

Despite the reams of fact sheets the White House has been putting out, no one really knows how bad things are likely to get — including Republicans who have criticized the president for exaggerating the effects.

Simple arithmetic can show the impact on some programs — the checks the federal government sends to unemployed people will be smaller, for instance.

But many of the reductions, such as those in education spending, will not be felt for months in most school systems, which gives individual districts some time to make adjustments and allow­ances for the lost funds.

That means the administration’s dire projection that “as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs” is guesswork at best; most school districts will not start sending out layoff notices for the next school year until around May.

State and local governments could also shift money around to blunt the impact on some popular programs such as Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to homebound elderly people and is funded with flexible federal grant money.

And some of the scariest scenarios — say, concerns that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which stands to lose more than $300 million, will not have the resources it needs to spot and contain the next deadly disease outbreak — are by their nature impossible to quantify.

“The threats aren’t decreasing,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “I can’t predict when an outbreak is going to happen.”

While the country has lived through five temporary government shutdowns since 1981, “we actually haven’t had something quite like this before,” said David Kamin, formerly special assistant to the president for economic policy in the Obama White House and now a New York University law professor. “We’ve never had an across-the-board cut of this magnitude applied.”

What is not new, however, is the impulse of officials to resort to melodrama when they are faced with budget cuts. Getting people’s attention has been a challenge in the case of the sequester. In the latest Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey, only one in four said they were closely following news about the automatic spending cuts.

The ploy even has a name: the “Washington Monument” syndrome, a reference to the National Park Service’s decision to close that landmark and the Grand Canyon for two days a week after the Nixon administration cut funding in 1969.

It worked. Congress restored the Park Service’s money. (At the moment, however, the Washington Monument is already closed, for repairs of earthquake damage.)

Another variation of that tactic is known as “Firemen First.” President Obama employed that one on Feb. 19, when he stood in front of dozens of police officers, firefighters and ambulance technicians in navy dress uniforms and warned, “Emergency responders like the ones who are here today, their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded.”

No one disputes that $85 billion in cuts over the seven months that remain in the fiscal year will be felt.

“In all cases like this, the numbers have to be averages and estimates, but that does not mean they are wrong,” said Richard Kogan, a former top adviser in the Obama White House Office of Management and Budget who is now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Republicans, however, are skeptical of some of the more dramatic claims by the administration, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s warning that more than 100 air traffic control towers could be closed, forcing travelers to face excruciating flight delays.

In congressional testimony Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta noted that the $627 million in cuts for his agency would take its spending back to 2008 levels.

“What’s so different from 2008?” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.). “We’re not going back that far. The sky isn’t falling. I don’t understand why the administration takes the position that the world is coming to an end.”

FAA officials say that one difference is a three-year union contract with controllers — reached through arbitration in 2009 — that added $669 million to its costs.

Republicans were also quick to raise questions when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced that it had released hundreds of illegal immigrants held in detention facilities, citing the yet-to-be-enacted spending reductions as the reason.

Few cuts are more politically sensitive than those that would hit education, which is one reason Duncan’s declaration about teacher layoffs had such an impact.

Public education is largely funded by state and local governments; the federal government pays about 10 percent of the costs. Federal dollars are largely concentrated on poor children and those with disabilities, and the amounts are determined according to the number of children in each category in every state.

Districts have already received their federal dollars for the current school year; any impact from sequestration would affect the next school year. Two exceptions to that are schools on Indian reservations and military bases, which, Duncan noted, get a larger share of their funds from Washington and which will feel the effects of the cutbacks almost immediately.

For all the specificity of the White House estimates regarding the number of public school teachers who would be laid off because of sequestration, Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe acknowledged they were at best approximate. He said department officials took the total dollar amount to be cut and divided it by teachers’ average national salary of $70,000.

“It’s a back-of-the-envelope way to show what this means,” Briscoe said.

The loss of federal funds comes at a time when many districts are already struggling financially.

“Since 2008, spending at the state and local level has gone down tremendously,” said Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association. “Districts have already made significant cuts.”

Lowndes County, Ala., just south of Montgomery, is one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest states. About 95 percent of the children attending its seven schools live below the poverty line. Grants from the federal government account for $10.2 million of the school board’s $26 million budget in the current school year. Those federal dollars include everything from Head Start funds and grants for homeless, poor and disabled children to bonuses to attract teachers to a rural area.

Steve Foster, vice president of the Lowndes County Board of Education, said state education aid to the county has dropped 25 percent in the past four years, making it more dependent on federal dollars.

But even in Lowndes County, teacher layoffs are likely to be a last resort.

“We’ll make those cuts in workbooks, software, educational supplies, and then we’ll look at personnel beyond that,” he said.

Zachary A. Goldfarb and Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

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