The Clock Is Ticking

Unless Congress and the President can get their act together by Friday, the huge cuts in federal spending go into effect.

About 2 million long-term unemployed people could see a $30 cut in benefit checks now averaging $300 a week. Federal subsidies for school construction, clean energy and state and local public works projects could be pinched. Low-income new mothers may find it harder to sign up for food aid.

But that is only the beginning.

Depending on how well states and communities manage any shortfalls in aid from Washington, the broader public will begin to feel the pinch as well.

Furloughs of federal employees — including air traffic controllers — are for the most part a month or more away. Then, they might have to take up to a day off per week without pay. At that point the public is likely to start seeing delays at airports, disruptions in meat inspection, and fewer services at national parks.

If the impasse lasts into the fall, it is expected to shrink Head Start slots, among other important programs.

While Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants and veterans’ programs aren’t threatened by the sequester, officials insist that it would affect capability of the U.S. military and compromise border security.

“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester,” warned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Napolitano, adding that the impact would be “like a rolling ball. It will keep growing.”

According to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the sequester may mean  a frequent-flier nightmare of 90-minute delays at airports, limited flights and closed regional airports. Republican lawmakers have dismissed the administration warnings as “exaggerations,” and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

As the Republicans and the White House trade accusations and try to shift the blame to each other, it is the American people who ultimately have to pay the price for a dysfunctional government. How far and how deep the cuts will truly be felt remains to be seen, but even in the best-case scenario, the 2011 deal that was supposed to ensure that a compromise is reached is about to backfire badly. These cuts were once considered so drastic that they would never be allowed to take effect.

It is high time for all sides involved to roll up their sleeves and began to fulfill their responsibilities to the voters who put them in office. Instead of using the airwaves and print media to attack each other, they should start round-the-clock, high- level negotiations to reach a deal.

While partisan politics is part and parcel of Western democracy, there comes a time when the needs of the country must come first.