March 1st came and went, so the budgetary axe began to fall.
At first, it didn't seem so bad. Yes, the cuts weren't quite as across the board as expected. The meat industry, for example, protested because health inspector furloughs would slow its production lines, so Congress patched the problem and spared those inspectors. But meat production aside, there was a sense that the cuts might not be so bad after all.
They were to be doled out based on a formula for meeting the arbitrary target of $85 billion in reductions in 2013, and no one knew precisely what would happen to any given program. In April, more than a month after the cuts had begun, the White House issued the president's budget proposal for the following year, an annual milestone that typically included detailed information about federal spending in the current year. But across thousands of pages of documents and tables, the new budget ignored sequestration, and so reported meaningless 2013 numbers, because even the White House couldn't say exactly what impact these cuts would have on programs and public investment across the country.
As it happened, they didn't have to wait long to find out. The first ripples of impact began to spread quickly indeed. Losing some government funding, cancer clinics in New Mexico and Connecticut turned away patients. In Kentucky, Oregon, and Montana, shelters for victims of domestic violence cut services. In New York, Maryland, and Alabama, public defenders were furloughed, limiting access to justice for low-income people. In Illinois and Minnesota, public school teachers were laid off. In Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi, Head Start shortened the school year, while in Kansas and Indiana, some low-income children simply lost access to the program entirely. In Alaska, a substance abuse clinic shut down. Across the country, Meals on Wheels cut four million meals for seniors in need.
Only when the FAA imposed furloughs on its air traffic controllers did public irritation threaten to boil over. Long lines and airport delays ensued, and people were angry. And not just any people—people who had access to members of Congress. In a Washington that has gridlocked the most routine business, lawmakers moved at a breakneck pace, taking just five days to pass special legislation to solve the problem. To avoid furloughs and shorten waits for airline passengers, they allowed the FAA to spend funds that had been intended for long-term airport repairs and improvements.
Flights would leave on time—at least until runways cracked and crumbled. (You undoubtedly remember the scandal of 2019 at Cincinnati International Airport, when a bright young candidate for Senate met her demise in a tragic landing mishap.)
And then, of course, the Pentagon asked for an exemption, too. We're talking about the military behemoth of planet Earth, which in 2013 accounted for 40% of military spending globally, its outlays exceeding the next 10 largest militaries combined. It, too wanted a special exemption for some of its share of the cutbacks.
Meat inspectors, the FAA, and the Department of Defense enjoyed special treatment, but the rest of the nation was, as the history books recount, not so lucky. Children from middle-class and low-income families saw ever fewer resources at school, closing doors of opportunity. The young, old, and infirm found themselves with dwindling access to basic resources such as health care or even a hot dinner. Federal grants to the states dried up, and there was less money in state budgets for local priorities, from police officers to lowly streetlights.
And remember that, just as the sequestration cuts began, carbon concentration in the atmosphere breached 400 parts per million. (Climate scientists had long been warning that the level should be kept below 350 for human security.) Unfortunately, as with the groundbreaking research that led to the Internet, it takes money to do big things, and the long-term effects of cutting environmental protection, general research, and basic infrastructure meant that the US government would do little to stem the extreme weather that has, in 2023, become such a part of our world and our lives.
Looking back from a country now eternally in crisis, it's clear that a Rubicon was crossed back in 2013. There was then still a chance to reject across-the-board budget cuts that would undermine a nation built on sound public investment and shared prosperity. At that crossroads, some fought against austerity. Losing that battle, others argued for a smarter approach: close tax loopholes to raise new revenue, or reduce waste in health care, or place a tax on carbon, or cut excessive spending at the Pentagon. But too few Americans—with too little influence—spoke up, and Washington didn't listen. The rest of the story, as you well know, is history.
Mattea Kramer is Research Director at National Priorities Project, where Jo Comerford is Executive Director. Both are TomDispatch regulars. They wrote A People's Guide to the Federal Budget.
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