SPIN METER: A dubious list of budget 'horribles'

Tuesday - 2/26/2013, 5:34pm EST

FILE – In this Dec. 29, 1995, file photo President Clinton meets with Republican congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, right, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, second from left, at the White House to discuss the federal budget impasse. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is partially visible at left. President Barack Obama and his officials are doing their best to drum up public concern over the shock wave of spending cuts that could strike the government in just days. So it’s a good time to be alert for sky-is-falling hype. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama and his officials are doing their best to drum up public concern over the shock wave of spending cuts that could strike the government in just days. So it's a good time to be alert for sky-is-falling hype.

Administration officials are coming forward with a grim compendium of jobs to be lost, services to be denied or delayed, military defenses to be let down and important operations to be disrupted. Obama's new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, spoke of a "devastating list of horribles."

For most Americans, though, it's far from certain they will have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day if the budget-shredder known as the sequester comes to pass. Maybe they will, if the impasse drags on for months.

For now, there's a whiff of the familiar in all the foreboding, harking back to the mid-1990s partial government shutdown, when officials said old people would go hungry, illegal immigrants would have the run of the of the land and veterans would go without meds. It didn't happen.

For this episode, provisions are in place to preserve the most crucial services -- and benefit checks. Furloughs of federal workers are at least a month away, breathing room for a political settlement if the will to achieve one is found. Many government contractors would continue to be paid with money previously approved.

But while the government prepares to make the best of a tough situation, it's putting the worst possible face on it all.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says teacher layoffs have already begun, but he has not backed up that claim and school administrators say no pink slips are expected before May, for the next school year, if the budget crisis persists.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the money crunch means the national parks system will be hit with a "perfect storm."

But perish the thought of yellow police tape around Yellowstone. It's far from settled that parks would close. Officials said to expect reduced operating hours, fewer rangers, bathrooms that might be locked and trash that might not be collected as often.

To be sure, the cuts are big and will have consequences. Knowing what they will be, though, is far from a precise exercise.

And there is a lot of improbable precision in administration statements about what could happen: more than 373,000 seriously ill people losing mental health services, 600,000 low-income pregnant women and new mothers losing food aid and nutrition education, 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites, 125,000 poor households going without vouchers, and much more.

"These numbers are just numbers thrown out into the thin air with no anchor, and I think they don't provoke the outrage or concern that the Obama administration seeks," said Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy and budget. For all the dire warnings, he said, "It's not clear who gets hurt by this."

The estimates in many cases come from a simple calculation: Divide the proscribed spending cut by a program's per-person spending to see how many beneficiaries may lose services or benefits under the sequester.

But in practice, through all the layers of bureaucracy and the everyday smoke and mirrors of the federal budget, there is rarely a direct and measurable correlation between a federal dollar and its effect on the ground.

That has meant a lot of tenuous "could happen" warnings by the administration, not so much "will happen" evidence.

So it was in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' letter to Congress laying out likely consequences of the spending cuts for her agency's operations. She said the sequester "could" compromise the well-being of more than 373,000 people who "potentially" would not get needed mental health services, which in turn "could result" in more hospitalizations and homelessness.

Duncan left himself less wiggle room. "This stuff is real," he said last week. "Schools are already starting to give teachers notices."

Asked to provide backup for Duncan's assertion, spokesman Daren Briscoe said it was based on "an unspecified call he was on with unnamed persons," and the secretary might not be comfortable sharing details.

Briscoe referred queries about layoffs to the American Association of School Administrators. Noelle M. Ellerson, an assistant director of the organization, said Monday that in her many discussions with superintendents at the group's just-completed annual meeting, she heard of no layoffs of teachers. While everyone is bracing for that possibility down the road, she said, "not a single one I spoke with had already issued pink slips."