In previous budget battles, federal agencies fought against cuts to their funding by a ploy called "turning out the lights on the Washington Monument." The theory was that a public aroused by the capital's great monuments gone dark would demand Congress resolve the problem and get the spotlights back on. It usually worked.
Federal agencies are preparing a variation of the same strategy if Congress goes through with an $85 billion across-the-board cut in federal spending starting March 1. The effect will not be felt immediately because federal regulations require that most government employees be given 30 days' notice of furloughs or layoffs. That would buy time for most of the month of March for the White House and Congress to come up with a solution, although if you believe the tough talk coming from both sides that's not in the cards.
Pentagon officials said 800,000 civilian employees worldwide would be furloughed one day a week for 22 weeks, an effective pay cut of 20 percent. The uniformed military is exempt from the sequester, but cuts in training, maintenance and equipment replacement will result in what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called "a serious erosion of readiness across the force," specifically, that by the end of the year, assuming this thing drags on that long, two-thirds of the Army's combat brigades will be unfit for deployment.
The FBI said it would have to furlough 2,285 employees, including 775 agents, because of the cuts.
The Federal Aviation Administration will furlough 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, for an average of 11 days just as the summer travel season is picking up.
Among the 100,000 Treasury employees facing furloughs are Internal Revenue Service clerks and agents just as the tax season goes into full swing, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The public will be affected in ways it might not have expected. The law requires federal inspectors to be on duty at meat and poultry plants. With the inspectors facing 15-day furloughs, many of the nation's 6,000 meat-production facilities may have to close down temporarily, affecting the supply of meat and chicken.
Although it's idle talk so far, you do hear that the Department of Homeland Security would disproportionately furlough Transportation Security Administration inspectors at Washington's three airports, meaning long lines and missed flights for members of Congress. It would anger both the flying public and the lawmakers.
That might prove even more effective than turning out the lights at the Washington Monument. Just in case, allow extra time if you're flying to and from the capital.