"I don't think anybody can be confident that anything's going to happen in the lame duck" session of Congress, said Scott Lilly, a former longtime aide on the House Appropriations Committee who's now with the Center for American Progress think tank. "People find it so absurd that they don't think it's at all possible that it's going to happen. And when they find out it has happened, the reaction is going to be extreme. Sometime in January you're going to see the Congress finally come to its senses."
The real-world impact of a short sequester of several weeks would vary program by program. For example, Education Department grants to school districts are sent out in early fall and wouldn't be affected unless the sequester dragged on for months. The same for a program like Head Start, in which funding is delivered to states in the summer.
But labor-intensive programs like air traffic control, meat inspection and Transportation Security Administration screening at airports would be affected immediately. Fewer employees at national parks could mean closed campgrounds and less access for visitors, and there would be fewer workplace safety inspectors at job sites.
Cuts in other federal programs might go unnoticed for a while. For example, many people eligible for subsidized housing vouchers are already on waiting lists. Their wait would just be longer.
The impact would be more pronounced if gridlock persisted and the sequester lasted a year.
In testimony to Congress earlier this month, acting White House Budget Director Jeffrey Zients said the automatic spending cuts would mean that 700,000 fewer low-income women and children would receive food aid and 100,000 preschool kids would lose places in Head Start
Zients said such cuts "would jeopardize critical programs that improve children's health and education, adversely impacting future generations."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee panel responsible for education and health-related spending, released a staff report last month which broke the cuts down further.
It estimated that the sequester could mean more than 12,000 HIV-positive people would lose access to their antiviral drugs, and that a $2.7 billion cut in federal funding for Title I grants to schools, special education funding and Head Start could mean more than 46,000 lost jobs.
"Some members of Congress warn that defense contracting firms will lay off employees if sequestration goes into effect," Harkin said at a recent hearing. "They say nothing of the tens of thousands of teachers, police officers and other public servants in communities all across America who would also lose their jobs. A laid-off teacher is just as unemployed as a laid-off defense contractor."
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