It's All Politics
5:09 pm
Wed December 5, 2012

Looming Spending Cuts Would Hit Hard All Over

Tax increases are only a part of what lies ahead if Congress can't come to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff by the new year. Massive spending cuts will also kick in — and those cuts will be felt throughout the economy.

The current stalemate got under way two years ago when Congress, locked in a bitter partisan battle over whether to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, passed what was known as the Budget Control Act of 2011.

If Congress couldn't resolve its spending battles by the end of 2012, the law said, there would be what are called "sequester cuts" — automatic, massive reductions in nearly every part of the budget.

Across-The-Board Cuts

Cary Leahey, senior adviser with the consulting group Decision Economics, says the cuts affect both good programs and bad.

"Each particular program which would be affected would all be cut pretty much by the same percentage amount," Leahey says. "And it would not be done rationally — it would just be done that you cut all programs the same."

Altogether, the cuts would eliminate more than $110 billion in federal spending in 2013 alone. Nearly half of that would be in defense spending. But there would also be cuts in education, health care and law enforcement. Much of that money goes to the states in the form of grants.

"State budget officers and policymakers have already had to make a series of really serious decisions on balancing their budgets," says Ingrid Schroeder, director of the Fiscal Analysis Initiative at the Pew Center on the States. "This is going to add a whole other layer of complexity to some already tough decisions that they've made."

'You're Going To Feel It'

Schroeder says states like Virginia and Maryland, which depend heavily on federal spending, will take a hit, as will states with a strong military presence, like Hawaii. Former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder says cuts in defense spending have a way of spilling over into the rest of the economy.

"If you run a business near a military base — a cafe, a grocery store, a bowling alley ... a restaurant, anything — and the military base has meaningful cutbacks in spending, you're going to feel it as a civilian," Blinder says.

But even without this kind of spillover effect, Blinder says the looming sequester cuts will slow the economy at a time when it's already weak. He says the cuts could reduce economic activity by anywhere from 0.7 percent to 1 percent.

And a 1 percent reduction in economic activity, he says, means about a 1 percent cut in the labor market.

"And 1 percent of employment in the United States now is roughly 1.3 million jobs," Blinder says. "That's not good."

A Little 'Wiggle Room'

Blinder notes that the cuts won't necessarily happen right away; the government, he says, has some wiggle room about when it implements them. So if the two sides are close to an agreement on Jan. 1, they can stall a bit. But he also says the window for solving the dispute is closing.

"My judgment would be that if this is not settled by the second half of January, we're going to feel severe effects on the economy."

And there are signs the effects are already being felt. Leahey, of Decision Economics, says companies need time to plan when they bring in new people — and that they may already be holding back on hiring in anticipation of the cuts.

"So if the numbers for this Friday's employment report are dismal, it may not be [due to Hurricane Sandy] — it may be preparing for these sequester cuts," Leahey says.

All of this will be happening at a time when consumers are already feeling the bite from higher taxes — and that could be an even bigger problem for the economy.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So now to the question of what happens if the White House and Congress do not reach a deal. Much of the debate is focused on the expiration of tax cuts set for January 1st. The tax increases are only part of it. There will also be massive cuts in federal spending, and they will be felt throughout the economy, as NPR's Jim Zarroli explains.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: This stalemate got underway two years ago. Congress was locked in a bitter partisan battle over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, so it passed what was known as the Budget Control Act of 2011. It said if Congress couldn't resolve its spending battles by this year, there would be what are called sequester cuts - automatic, massive reductions in nearly every part of the budget. Cary Leahey of Decision Economics says the cuts affect good programs and bad.

CARY LEAHEY: Each particular program which would be affected would all be cut pretty much by the same percentage amount, and it would not be done rationally. It would just be done that you cut all programs the same.

ZARROLI: All together, the cuts would eliminate more than $110 billion in federal spending in 2013 alone. Nearly half of that would be in defense spending. But there would also be cuts in education, health care and law enforcement. Much of the money goes to the states in the form of grants. Ingrid Schroeder is with the Pew Center on the States.

INGRID SCHROEDER: State budget officers and policymakers have already had to make a series of really difficult decisions in balancing their budgets. And this is just going to add a whole other layer of complexity onto some already really tough decisions that they've made.

ZARROLI: Schroeder says states like Virginia and Maryland - which depend heavily on federal spending - will take a hit. So will states like Hawaii, with a strong military presence. Former Federal Reserve vice president Alan Blinder says cuts in defense spending have a way of spilling over into the rest of the economy.

ALAN BLINDER: If you run a business near a military base - a cafe, a grocery store, a bowling alley, a movie, a restaurant, anything - and the military base has meaningful cutbacks in spending, you're going to feel it as a civilian.

ZARROLI: But Blinder says even without this kind of spillover effect, the looming sequester cuts will slow the economy down at a time when it's already weak. He says the cuts could reduce economic activity by anywhere from seven-tenths of a percentage point to 1 percent. And a 1 percent reduction in economic activity means about a 1 percent cut in the labor market.

BLINDER: And 1 percent of employment in the United States now is roughly 1.3 million jobs.

ZARROLI: So we would lose that many jobs?

BLINDER: Yeah. That's not good.

ZARROLI: Blinder notes that the cuts won't necessarily happen right away. He says the government has some wiggle room about when it implements them. So if the two sides are close to an agreement on January 1st, they can stall a bit. But, he says, the window for resolving the dispute is closing.

BLINDER: My judgment would be that if this is not settled by the second half of January, we're going to feel severe effects on the economy.

ZARROLI: And there are signs the effects are already being felt. Cary Leahey says companies need time to plan when they bring in new people, and they may already be holding back on their hiring in anticipation of the cuts.

LEAHEY: So if the numbers for this Friday's employment report are abysmal, it may not be the storm. It may be preparing for these sequester cuts.

ZARROLI: And all this will be happening at a time when consumers are already feeling the bite from higher taxes. And that could be an even bigger problem for the economy. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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