The long-dreaded, much-feared sequester arrived in America on the first day of March with all the ferocity of a lamb. Automatic spending cuts of $85 billion were enacted, or at least authorized for gradual implementation by most federal agencies. Public reaction ranged from a yawn to a muted, "Meh … ."Investors certainly weren't cowering last week as the sequester neared. The Dow climbed on three of the five days. All three major market indexes improved for the week, although slightly and at a rate of less than 1 percent. No big whoop, but also nothing close to the meltdown that sequester fear-mongers warned us against.
We're not saying the sequester will be inconsequential. Any economic policy that is simultaneously condemned by Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, and by President Barack Obama, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Then again, forced spending cuts — however indiscriminate and clumsily applied — are not an altogether bad thing for a government that finds itself more than $16 trillion in debt.
Yes, federal agencies will have to sacrifice. And yes, people will have to do without. But a review of what the sequester is bringing to Clark County reveals a situation that hardly warrants any sky-is-falling urgency.
Take the local health department, for example. Clark County Public Health officials expect a reduction of about 9 percent in federal funding, but federal dollars constitute only about one-fourth of the department's total budget.
The county's community development department could see reductions in funding for weatherization and energy assistance programs for low-income citizens, a matter of concern but not catastrophic when placed next to the federal debt. Overall, the county could lose about $1 million in federal funding, but County Administrator Bill Barron has said the county "will do the best we can to make sure our constituents and our citizens don't get negatively impacted by this." OK, give the guy a chance to prove it.
Several programs in the county's community services department could be impacted, but weeks could pass before we know how much or for how long. By then, Congress and the president might find another way to kick the can down the road.
Leaders of other agencies say, at worst, the sequester could really hurt, but for the time being, the severity of pain is unknown. At Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Superintendent Tracy Fortmann said "the parks will remain safe and the resources will remain protected." No distress calls there.
Significant fears were expressed by officials at local homeless shelters. People could lose their housing vouchers, and some folks could become homeless again. But again, details of any impact of the sequester remain uncertain.
And lots of local residents will take a hit to the wallet. Clark County is home to about 3,000 federal employees, each of whom could be socked with unpaid furloughs, although about 900 federal workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs likely are exempt from the sequester.
In public education, teacher jobs, Head Start funding and other programs could be cut, but precise figures are unknown. The good news is that Congress and the president have several weeks to keep this problem from becoming a crisis.
The bad news is, well, it's Congress and the president we're all depending on.