Analysis: Impact of sequestration on non-defense discretionary spending


For the most part, the media coverage on sequestration – or the looming automatic across-the-board discretionary spending cuts – has been focused on the defense sector.

Learn More: 5 key facts about sequestration

Although there have been scores hearings held on defense sequestration, Congress has been far less attentive when it came to non-defense sequestration.

But more attention should be paid to the immense damage that sequestration would inflict on non-defense programs pertaining to national security, public safety, law enforcement, local schools, health and science research, environment, and social safety nets for low-income women and children.

These domestic discretionary programs have already suffered more than $400 billion in cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011. If Congress fails to reach a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction package by the end of the year, sequestration will take effect next January and cut another $492 billion from non-defense discretionary spending.

Learn More: Discretionary spending will face another round of cuts if the Super Committee’s plan fails

One of the most helpful analysis on the impact of non-defense sequestration to date has been a 15-page letter sent by Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) to members of the House Appropriations Committee on Oct. 9th.

In the letter, Dicks beseeched his colleagues to “find a way to replace sequestration with a balanced approach to long-term deficit reduction that focuses on economic growth and job creation, and does no harm to our economic recovery in the short-run.” 

Here’s an overview of what the 8.3% sequester cuts would do to domestic programs next year:

Homeland Security:

A total of 24,500 jobs will be cut, including:

  • 3,400 Border Patrol Agents, particularly affecting patrols in the southwest border
  • 3,400 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel, which would decrease security in the nation’s ports of entry and potentially increase the wait time for inspection of imported goods to enter the U.S.
  • 932 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, which would hamper investigations into terrorism and other transnational threats
  • 802 Immigration and Customs Enforcement “removal operations” staff, thereby limiting the number of deportations that can be carried out
  • 7,240 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers, which would increase passenger wait time to go through security at airports
  • 819 Secret Service personnel
  • 536 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel, which would “decimate FEMA’s permanent workforce” and would “significantly hamper FEMA’s preparedness and disaster response capabilities.” FEMA has already seen a $769 million cut under the Budget Control Act of 2011. This would seriously restrict the federal government’s ability to help people affected by natural disaster such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes.
  • $116 million will be cut from the Federal Air Marshals program, reducing their protection coverage on domestic and international flights
  • $140.4 million reduction from cyber-security program to protect the federal government’s computers from being hacked


Public Safety:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be forced to cut $800 million, which would likely result in 2,200 job cuts including air traffic controllers. These cuts would, in turn, force airlines and package delivery services (i.e. FedEx, UPS) to reduce the number of flights per day and cut back on services to smaller airports. Sequestration would also “significantly delay” the FAA’s updates to its aging traffic control system – some of which are 50 years old.
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will see a cut of $318 million, forcing the agency to scale back inspections of food, drugs, and medical supplies before they are sold to consumers. In particular, the FDA would likely reduce the number of inspectors at meat and poultry plants, which cannot operate without federal inspectors. For meat plants, that would mean cutting back on operating hours and laying off employees; for Americans, that would mean higher prices for meat in their grocery stores.
  • Justice Department (DOJ) will face a $2.5 billion cut. To meet the budget reductions, the Justice Department will have to eliminate 7,500 positions, including 3,000 FBI, DEA, ATF agents and U.S. Marshals; 1,000 attorneys; and impose a 25-day furlough on remaining employees.
  • The Bureau of Prison will have to lay off about 10% or thousands of correctional officers and furlough the remaining workers for 30 days. Doing so would increase the inmate to staff ratios at federal prisons around the country and jeopardize the safety of both inmates and staffs.
  • Federal courts will lose about 5,400 court staff and 370 court security officers. The staff cuts will jeopardize supervisions of thousands of convicted felons and people on pre-trial release.
  • $105 million will be cut from fundings to prevent and fight wildfires. Rural fire departments will see their federal grants reduced.
  • Federal funding to help communities and towns update their wastewater and drinking water infrastructure would be significantly reduced.



  • $1 billion reduction in federal funding to schools serving over 2 million disadvantaged students. Approximately 16,000 teachers and aides face layoffs as a result.
  • 12,000 special education teachers and aides will lose their jobs due to reductions in federal special education grants. The cuts would impact an estimably 500,000 students with disabilities and special needs.
  • About 20,000 Head Start personnel will be laid off, resulting in 100,000 fewer children enrolled in the program that works to improve their “cognitive, social, and emotion development”.


Safety Net Programs:

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) will face a $966 million cut, potentially reducing food aid to 900,000 low-income women and their children (under age of 5).
  • $600 million will be slashed from the Social Security Administration, resulting in employee furlough totaling to 2 to 3 weeks. This would increase the processing and wait times for disability claims as well as reducing the SSA’s efforts to combat fraud.
  • $356 million cut to Indian Health Service
  • 80,000 low-income parents would lose their child care assistance due to reductions in federal block grants
  • 100,000 more people would become homeless due to cuts to Section 8 low-income housing assistance


Public Health:  

  • $525 million cut to the Center for Disease Control, the federal agency responsible for preventing and responding to outbreaks of infection diseases
  • $2.5 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health. This would result in about 2,400 fewer research grants to universities and medical institutes searching for the causes and cures of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
  • 1 million fewer patients treated at Community Health Centers that provide affordable primary care to uninsured Americans


Science and Technology Research:

  • $423 million cut to Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). “This cut would significantly curtail fundamental research in areas of science that are a key to our nation’s prosperity and to preserving America’s place as the world leader in science and technology,” wrote Dicks. “Given the long time horizons necessary to make significant progress in the area of science, federal support of fundamental research is necessary and an investment that the private sector, with its required attention to short term earnings, cannot support.”
  • $580 million cut to the National Science Foundation. This would result in 1,600 fewer research and education grants awarded, thereby impacting an estimated 19,300 researchers and students.
  • Additional cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would extend the United State’s dependence on Russia for space flights at the price of $63 million per seat.


Financial Market Protection:


International relations and foreign aid

  • Sequestration would impose more cuts to State Department staff and security at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. “Sequestration cuts to these programs would place the safety of American citizens and diplomatic personnel abroad at risk by once again setting the State Department and USAID on a path toward hollowing out staffing at embassies and missions,” Dicks wrote. 
  • Reductions to funding for military and technological aid to Israel; assistance to Mexico to combat drug cartels; and foreign aid to prevent 130 countries from becoming safe havens for Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.


Here’s another important point to keep in mind: Just as sequestration would likely “kill” jobs in the defense industry, the public sector layoffs and funding cuts to domestic programs will also result in private sector job losses, whether it’s meat plants forced to scale back operating hours due to a shortage of FDA inspectors, higher prices to travel for business or to ship products by air because of fewer flights allowed due to a shortage of FAA air traffic controllers, or low-income families not being able to buy food or basic necessities, decreasing sales at local stores.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service estimated that 1.4 million jobs would be lost if sequestration takes effect next year, and the Congressional Budget Office said the job losses would push up the unemployment rate to 9.1% and push the country into another recession.

“Sequestration would be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments, and core government fun­ctions,” according to the Office of Management and Budget. “No amount of planning can mitigate the significant impact of the sequestration. The destructive across-the-board cuts required by the sequestration are not a substitute for a responsible deficit reduction plan.”


Learn More:

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