Blood supplies contaminated, 1.6 million children unvaccinated, savings and loan swindlers unprosecuted, and "the civil rights of Americans" trampled.
An end to the world as we know it?
No, just the annual Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction ritual called sequestration, or more precisely, the preliminary plans of government agencies for the automatic spending cuts the law could impose.
Congressional leaders are scheduled to resume their budget summit with the administration at Andrews Air Force Base on Friday. Under the law, if they cannot agree on a budget that would reduce the $168 billion federal deficit to $64 billion by Oct. 1, the automatic cuts take effect.
Pressure on President Bush and Congress to solve the budget crisis has increased as the deadline draws close, and few believe either side in the negotiations will let the full sequester take place.
But the stakes have been vividly outlined by Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, who in July raised the specter of drastically reduced government services. Last week, the government notified many of its 2.4 million employees that they would be furloughed, or asked to cut their hours, if sequestration is imposed.
Now comes the more specific predictions of gloom and doom from federal agencies and departments that, under the law, would be subject to the automatic cuts of up to 32.4 percent in non-defense spending to stay beneath the deficit ceiling. Social Security benefits, federal retirement and disability benefits, veterans compensation and pension, state unemployment and many low-income entitlement programs are exempt from cuts.
The departments and agencies asked to draft sequester plans have ignored the likelihood that the plans will not have to be implemented. The result has been a patch of dramatic prose in the usually dry annual budget talk.
The Justice Department states in the sequester plan it sent to Darman on Aug. 27: "For the FBI, the 1991 sequester would significantly reduce the bureau's ability to thwart terrorist activity that may result from the current Iraqi crisis." The FBI's efforts to combat organized crime would be affected by the cuts, "causing a potential for the full reemergence of criminal organizations." At the same time, it notes, the FBI proposes terminating 6,160 employees, instead of furloughing them.
If the sequester takes place, the department's Criminal Division "would be unable to carry out its mandate in resolving the savings and loan crisis" and a sequester would result "in the virtual shutdown of the Dallas Bank Fraud Task Force," the plan says.
The document also strongly hints that criminal defendants under the U.S. Marshals Service care might have to be released from jail because department lawyers would not be able to meet court deadlines. It predicts that all Tax Division staff would have to be furloughed for 77 days, which would contribute to a revenue loss "in the billions of dollars" from postponed or forgone tax litigation.
Such predictions, and the fear and anger they have provoked among federal employees, are an unavoidable fact of life under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, said congressional aides and budget experts.
While hyping the consequences of budget cuts "is an old bureaucratic trick," said Rudolph G. Penner, a budget expert and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, if the full sequester were to take place "you wouldn't have to exaggerate the horrors, they would be there . . . this just can't happen."
Under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, the automatic cuts can be suspended only if there has been less than 1 percent growth in the economy during the preceding two quarters; or if OMB and the Congressional Budget Office project less than zero growth in two of the next four quarters; or if there is a declaration of war.
The only other way for Congress to avoid the cuts, without increasing revenue, is to change the law.
One such change under consideration is to amend the deficit target to allow for cuts of only $50 billion this year and up to $500 billion over the next five years.
"It will be sobering, but it will have a net effect of reducing some of the anguish this causes each year," one leadership aide said.
In the meantime, federal employees are preparing for the worst. Although presidential appointees cannot be furloughed and President Bush has exempted uniformed military personnel, most other employees can be furloughed for up to 22 days by simple notification. After that, more complex rules kick in that take seniority into account, among other things.
The number of days employees in each department may be furloughed varies according to whether a department has areas other than personnel, such as capital expenditures and travel, from which to make up its portion of the sequester.
But cuts in services and programs would hit all Americans.
According to the Education Department and the Health and Human Services Department sequester plans, Chapter 1 grants for schools with disadvantaged students would be reduced, along with grants to states for the education of handicapped students and grants and loans to college students. About 22,000 children who would have been screened for lead poisoning would not be. Head Start would close its doors to 185,000 eligible children.
About $84 million in federal grants to states for foster care, adoption and child protective services would be eliminated. "A reduction of this magnitude would severely strain state child welfare systems," according to an HHS plan.
Biomedical research would be reduced by $3.5 billion, 30,000 drug abuse treatment slots would close and the Food and Drug Administration "would have to severely curtail all its inspection and review operations, opening the possibility of contaminated blood," the HHS report states.
The Department of Agriculture predicts that the cuts "would cause the meat and poultry slaughter and processing industry to cease production" for the 137 days during the fiscal year that meat inspectors would be furloughed. Further, the number of animal and plant inspections would be drastically reduced and "would thus increase the risk of introducing serious animal and plant diseases and pests into the United States."
The Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that care at VA hospitals would suffer, 300 medical research programs would be wiped out and "quality management would become an unaffordable luxury." The VA also would be forced to cut the amount of money it contributes to burials, plots and headstone upkeep by 41 percent, according to the department's sequestration plan.
With all the bad news, some people potentially affected by the cuts have remained calm.
While the Department of Transportation predicts that a full sequester would cause a suspension of some Amtrak routes, Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said the train company has not begun planning for any. Black described a recent staff discussion about the sequester as "kind of a shrug feast. . . . Not that we don't care, but because we don't know what will happen. All these predictions are very speculative."