But, with Congress’s permission, it could still be “cut.”
So, instead of saving money by furloughing FBI agents and prison guards, the department lost only what it wasn’t free to spend anyway.
“It really was a loophole that allowed the Justice Department to largely escape the consequences of sequester,” said Scott Lilly, a former congressional staffer who works at the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s a good thing that they got past it. But it also sort of nixed this whole notion that everybody’s being treated the same — and everybody’s having to tighten their belt in the same way.”
At the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress found a similarly painless cut. Furloughs were looming for air-traffic controllers. Travel delays were expected to pile up.
But they didn’t. Congress prevented the furloughs by substituting another “cut.” It took $253 million from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which gives grants to airports (among the longtime recipients: Lake Murray State Park Airport in Oklahoma, which was eligible for $150,000 per year, despite averaging one takeoff and one landing per week).
But the FAA’s loss wasn’t as bad as it sounds: The grantees that were entitled to this money had already told the government they didn’t need it this year. They didn’t have anything immediate to spend it on. The FAA might still, however, have given it to somebody else.
At the Department of Homeland Security, officials had predicted that there would be insufficient space to hold detained illegal immigrants. It was one of four Homeland Security predictions that didn’t come true; another one, about cutbacks at the Coast Guard, did.
What was cut instead? Some things that hurt: Maintenance. Employee bonuses. Hiring.
And some things that didn’t.
The department, for example, cut $7.8 million for a grant program that helped prepare for disasters. But it told Congress that this program had $36 million waiting in the bank, “neither dedicated to a project nor an activity.” And it said the program was duplicative, anyway. Other federal programs were already doing the same thing. “There is no impact from this reduction because of the duplication,” the department told Congress.
At smaller agencies, predictions also turned out to be wrong. U.S. Park Police officers were supposed to have 12 furlough days. They took three. The National Park Service found $4 million in savings in its budget.
It was, in sum, a remarkable disappearing act.
The Obama administration still gives credence to estimates that sequestration might cost the country up to 750,000 jobs. Research by Goldman Sachs has shown declines in federal payrolls and layoffs at defense contractors.
But sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans, and its effects on the economy have been softened by a stronger job market and low interest rates.
“It was more the unquantified predictions of calamity by politicians that were wrong,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm.
But now, the Obama administration will seek to make the threat reappear. In October, when the new fiscal year begins, so will another round of sequestration. The administration expects a $109 billion cut.
This time, it says, there will be fewer ways to soften its impact. Many of the easier trims have already been made. The White House is again pressing Congress to agree on a broader budget deal, and replace the sequester, before October comes.
The problem is, officials said all that before.
“Their credibility — I don’t want to say it’s shot, but it’s definitely diminished,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who chairs a House subcommittee that has oversight over Homeland Security and has examined its sequestration predictions. “They’re going to have a hard time doing that, when they had the doomsday scenario, and the sky didn’t fall.”