The Sequestration makes landfall.

For as long as any of us can remember, hurricane landfall has been popularly conceived by both the public and the media as the place and time where the eye of the hurricane comes ashore.

Of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. The reality is that the hurricane’s impacts…the winds, but often more importantly, the swell and the storm surge… make their presence felt along many miles of coastline many hours earlier. This has important implications for coastal cities and residents and for those charged with emergency response. For example, it’s often the case that the swell and the storm surge will compromise the safety and trafficability of coastal roadways, so that any evacuation has to be completed well prior to the nominal moment at which the most intense part of the storm hits land. Construction projects are shut down due to rain and/or high winds. Air travel is jeopardized. That earlier time then works back through the entire sequence of preparations for the storm. All the purchasing of supplies, the boarding up of windows, tying down anything that might become airborne and thereby pose an additional hazard, the positioning of personnel and assets needed to maintain critical infrastructure ranging from power lines to hospitals, the cancellation of commercial aircraft flights and much, much more has to be accomplished prior to this earlier but somewhat more vaguely defined time. In fact the time horizon corresponding to “landfall” varies depending upon just which aspect of the preparations is at issue.

Something similar is happening with sequestration[1]. Last August, national leaders from both Republican and Democratic parties saw political risk in taking any action to deal with the Nation’s fiscal problems during the height of a quadrennial election. They deemed it wiser instead to postpone decisions and tradeoffs with respect to federal taxes and budget cuts, the need to balance short-term economic stimulus with long-term fiscal responsibility, and the impacts on such hot-button issues as defense spending and entitlements, until after the election. The August rhetoric was that this winter political factors would pose less of an obstacle to action because the people would have expressed their will on these subjects at the ballot box.  To show they were serious about doing their jobs and tackling a grave national challenge, Congress and the White House set a formal date for draconian cuts to defense and civilian spending by the federal government to go into effect unless the problems had been explicitly addressed:

Friday, March 1, 2013.

Americans were assured that the political decision to create such a financial cataclysm and an accompanying drop-dead date was intentional, well thought-out, and posed little risk. The sequester would be so dread, so obviously senseless, and so disastrous domestically and so embarrassing internationally that it could never be allowed to happen… that it would instead force the Congress and the White House to face together the nation’s fiscal problems expeditiously following the election[2]. The sequester would never make landfall but stay harmlessly out at sea.

However, the sequester’s impacts won’t simply start on March 1. Fact is, they’ve been consequential since last August. From that very time, planners at OMB and at the highest levels of government have had to accommodate that contingency. Think of this stage as analogous to the sighting of a tropical depression forming in the eastern Atlantic, off the coast of Africa. Each such nascent storm formation touches off a round of responses at the National Weather Service and its public- and private-sector partners… long before it’s known whether that storm will ever reach the United States.

Since the November elections, and especially in recent weeks, leadership and management of every government agency have struggled to maintain their mandated responsibilities and missions as they’ve been saddled with additional requirements to plan for the sequester and its impacts on their agencies. Private-sector partners, ranging from the largest aerospace and defense contractors to the smallest vendors of niche supplies and services, have had to struggle as well. The contingency planning no longer is just one of many concerns of a few leaders at the top. It’s been the single preoccupation of virtually every federal manager, at every level. And for the past week or so, the implications have hit not just the managers but every federal worker, nearly three million civilian employees and another 1.5 million military. It’s starting to be clear just how the cuts and shutdowns will affect their ability to do their jobs, their pay, and their families. It’s analogous to what happens once the National Weather Service concludes that a hurricane will indeed come ashore.

In recent years, improved weather forecasts have made it possible to pinpoint hurricane landfall and target the preparations that need to be taken and by whom. FEMA and DHS, electrical utilities, airlines, and myriad others pre-position their people and assets to respond to the storm. These actions reduce a given storm’s overall impacts, but in and of themselves constitute storm costs, and can by themselves in the run-up to major storms such as Sandy add up to a few billions of dollars.

Something similar can be said about preparations for sequestration. The costs to date must already total several billion dollars[3]. And these costs have been incurred whether or not Congress “averts” the sequestration on or before March 1.

And that cost estimate includes only those costs which can readily be monetized. What about any cost associated with any degradation (let alone breakdown) of the trust relationship between the American people and their elected representatives? Or of a rise in public cynicism about government? Or a decline in the morale of federal workers and the military? What about the cost in terms of how our elected representatives view themselves? Instead of being able to take pride in how they work together to make our country strong, they’ll be left to view themselves as no more than embittered obstructionists, obsessed with party loyalty to the exclusion of anything more noble.

Should the sequestration be implemented, even if only for a week, the negative impacts will be comparable to Sandy’s $50B cost… and as with Sandy, and recovery will take years. And that’s only the domestic hit. The 2012 political campaign saw numerous references to America as “the indispensable Nation.” Through repeated missteps such as this one… self-inflicted wounds, remember… we risk inviting other countries to see us as something less.

Surf’s up…and surging inland.



[1]Just returned from Mars? Then it’s possible you might not know what we’re talking about. If so, see, e.g., the story here…only one of thousands.

[2]Those not suffering from Alzheimers might recall that the initial drop-dead date was December 31-January 1… and that the problem was only partially dealt with at that time. Instead it was felt more appropriate to have the newly-elected Congress shoulder responsibility. Thus the can (or grenade) was kicked down the road

[3] To see this, suppose that 2 million federal employees have spent one week at a salary-plus-overhead cost of $1500/week responding to the sequestration. This aggregates to a cost of $3 billion. Some might argue that this is an over-estimate, but we must remember it’s roughly matched by a similar cost in the work of private-sector contractors.

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