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Maybe the Sequester Wasn't So Overstated After All

Not long ago, the emerging Beltway consensus was that the impact of the budget sequestration that went into effect last spring had been wildly overstated. The economic recovery was still ticking along, albeit too slowly for anyone's taste, and there were no reports of orphans being cast into the streets. The budget deficit was shrinking, thanks in part to the sequester cuts. There were even suggestions that President Obama had exaggerated the fallout from sequestration in order to force a deal to head it off.

Well, just in the past few days there've been several dings in that happy complacency as more and more people—including at least one esteemed conservative—become aware of sequestration's real and unexaggerated consequences.

Medical research. Even George Will is worried about this one:

A 2 percent reduction of federal spending would be easily manageable. It has, however, been made deliberately dumb by mandatory administrative rigidities intended to maximize pain in order to weaken resistance to any spending restraint. Spending on basic medical research is being starved as the river of agriculture subsidies rolls on.

For Francis Collins, being the NIH’s director is a daily experience of exhilaration and dismay. In the past 40 years, he says, heart attacks and strokes have declined 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Cancer deaths are down 15 percent in 15 years. An AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Researchers are on the trail of a universal flu vaccine, based on new understandings of the influenza virus and the human immune system. Chemotherapy was invented here — and it is being replaced by treatments developed here. Yet the pace of public health advances, Collins says, is being slowed by the sequester.

It would be nice, of course, if Will acknowledged his and his fellow conservatives' role in bringing about this sorry state of affairs. But hey, we'll take what we can get. Because the budget cuts Will is now lamenting are having real costs, as the Baltimore Sun reported over the weekend:

Dr. Craig Hendrix is exploring a novel concept: whether antiviral drugs can be absorbed through certain areas of the body to prevent sexual transmission of HIV. To test such hypotheses, Hendrix and his Johns Hopkins colleagues typically can put up healthy test subjects in hospital beds overnight, which creates a more effective experiment by allowing for more data collection and limiting outside variables. But volunteers in Hendrix's study are sleeping in a hotel between two long days of blood-drawing and CT scans because of a funding squeeze in an innovative federal grant program.

Great! Volunteers in an intensive and important study, tripping around the Best Western after a long day of blood-drawing. Now that's the way to maintain our global edge in medical research.

Head Start. This was one of the areas where Obama was accused of fear-mongering for political effect. Well, looks like he wasn't off by all that much, after all:

Head Start programs across the country eliminated services for 57,000 children in the coming school year to balance budgets diminished by the federal sequester, cutting 1.3 million days from Head Start center calendars and laying off or reducing pay for more than 18,000 employees, according to federal government data scheduled for release Monday.

The latest numbers, based on the results of “reduction plans” Head Start grantees submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services, fall short of earlier predictions by the Obama administration that 70,000 children would lose access to preschool because of the mandatory 5 percent cuts. But the cuts will still affect tens of thousands of poor families across the country who rely on Head Start for early learning programs, day care and a network of social services and medical care.

Government travel. Surely, you say, this is one area where we could cut back quite a bit without any real impact. After all, government officials only travel to absurd junkets like those General Service Administration clown shows, right? Well...

Geological visits to monitor volcanoes in Alaska have been scaled back. The defense secretary is traveling to Afghanistan two times a year instead of the usual four. For the first time in nearly three decades, NASA pulled out of the National Space Symposium, in Colorado Springs, even though representatives from France, Germany and China all made the trip...

Managers at the Food and Drug Administration have made it all but impossible for employees to receive approval for travel to conferences. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in an effort to help supplement reduced travel budgets for field inspectors, cut back on a program aimed at drowning prevention. At the Pentagon, defense officials skipped meetings with the international Afghanistan coalition in London and Rome this year, and without secure conference equipment, they could not participate virtually, officials said.

Even when travel is approved, it is often done with an eye on cost. Take the case of an Air Force officer at the Pentagon who has been ordered to continue traveling to a military base in Tennessee to provide training there. Twice this year, he drove to Dulles International Airport, where he picked up a rental car and drove ten hours to a Tennessee airport. The total bill, about $350, is less than the $1,600 he used to spend for a round-trip flight. The officer, who requested anonymity because he is not cleared to talk about such issues publicly, cited “the irony of driving to an airport to pick up a rental car to drive to another airport 500 miles away.” As he put it, “It is kind of baffling.”

Yes, indeed it is. We have a chance to start running the federal government sensibly again this fall, if Obama can get Republicans to agree to a deal to end the sequestration cuts, while also lifting the debt limit and agreeing to regular budget levels for the year ahead. But the odds of that are rather low. So those Hopkins volunteers better hold onto their motel swipe cards, and the Air Force officer better just keep truckin' across the Appalachians.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.