So is the Sky Really Falling?
(AP) Pres. Obama and his officials are doing their best to drum up public concern over the spending cuts that could strike the government in just days. So it's a good time to be alert for sky-is-falling hype.
Over the last week or so, administration officials have come forward with a grim compendium of jobs to be lost, services to be denied or delayed, military defenses to be let down, etc. etc. . Obama's new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, spoke of a "devastating list of horribles."
For most Americans, though, it's far from certain they will have a terrible, horrible, very bad day if the budget-shredder known as the sequester comes to pass. Maybe they will, if the impasse drags on for months.
For now, there's a whiff of the familiar in all the foreboding, harking back to the mid-1990s partial government shutdown, when officials said old people would go hungry, illegal immigrants would have the run of the of the land and veterans would go without drugs. It didn't happen.
For this episode, provisions are in place to preserve the most crucial services - and benefit checks. Furloughs of federal workers are at least a month away. Many government contractors would continue to be paid with money previously approved.
Warnings of thousands of teacher layoffs, for example, are made with the presumption that local communities would not step in with their own dollars - perhaps from higher taxes - to keep teachers in the classrooms if federal money is not soon restored. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says teacher layoffs have already begun, but he has not backed up that claim and school administrators say no pink slips are expected before May, for the next school year.
To be sure, the cuts are big and will have consequences. Knowing what they will be, though, is far from a precise exercise.
And there is a lot of improbable precision in administration statements about what could happen: more than 373,000 seriously ill people losing mental health services, 600,000 low-income pregnant women and new mothers losing food aid and nutrition education, 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites, 125,000 poor households going without vouchers, and much more.
"These numbers are just numbers thrown out into the thin air with no anchor, and I think they don't provoke the outrage or concern that the Obama administration seeks," said Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy and budget. For all the dire warnings, he said, "It's not clear who gets hurt by this."
The estimates in many cases come from a simple calculation: Divide the proscribed spending cut by a program's per-person spending to see how many beneficiaries may lose services or benefits under the sequester.
But in practice, through all the layers of bureaucracy and the everyday smoke and mirrors of the federal budget, there is rarely a direct and measurable correlation between a federal dollar and its effect on the ground.
That has meant a lot of tenuous "could happen" warnings by the administration, not so much "will happen" evidence.
So it was in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' letter to Congress laying out likely consequences for her agency's operations. She said the sequester "could" compromise the well-being of more than 373,000 people who "potentially" would not get needed mental health services, which in turn "could result" in more hospitalizations and homelessness.
Duncan left himself less wiggle room. "This stuff is real," he said last week. "Schools are already starting to give teachers notices."
Asked to provide backup, spokesman Daren Briscoe said it was based on "an unspecified call he was on with unnamed persons," and the secretary might not be comfortable sharing details.
Briscoe referred queries about layoffs to the American Association of School Administrators. Noelle M. Ellerson, an assistant director of the organization, said Monday that in her many discussions with superintendents at the group's just-completed annual meeting, she heard of no layoffs of teachers. While everyone is bracing for that possibility down the road, she said, "not a single one I spoke with had already issued pink slips."
Most school district budgets for the next school year won't be completed for two months, she said, meaning any layoff notices would come in early to mid-May. "No one had yet acted."
School districts in areas set aside for tribal lands or military bases count on Washington, but beyond that nearly all money to run most of the nation's public schools comes from local sources such as property taxes that are not affected by the federal cuts.
As for the assertion that 600,000 women could be dropped from the Women, Infants and Children Program, that's not to say the rolls would be cut by that number. The actual number is likely to include women who are not enrolled in the program now and could be denied when seeking to join it. Federal officials say the true number will depend on how states can manage their caseloads.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has warned of impending furloughs of air traffic controllers, who may need to take one day off every two weeks, and said air-travel delays are likely across the country. Asked Friday why the airline lobby predicted no major impact on air travel from the sequester, he said, "I don't think they have the information we're presenting to them today."
"The idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense," LaHood said. But it's a pressure tactic nonetheless: "What I'm trying to do is to wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side to the idea that they need to come to the table."
However the cuts fall, Light at NYU says the Washington Monument ploy, also known as the Firemen First principle, is at work.
It goes like this: Put someone's budget at risk and the first thing you'll hear is a threat to close a cherished national symbol or lay off firefighters and police, when in fact there are other ways to cut spending.
It so happens the Washington Monument is already closed, for earthquake repair. But Obama indulged in the Firemen First principle quite literally.
He appeared at the White House to warn of the consequences of the sequester. "Emergency responders like the ones who are here today - their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded."
The law gives little flexibility to agencies to protect favored programs, except for big ones specifically exempted from the automatic cuts, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits. FBI and Border Patrol furloughs are expected. Still, the White House has directed agencies to avoid cuts presenting "risks to life, safety or health" and to minimize harm to crucial services.
In the partial government shutdown during his presidency, Bill Clinton and his officials told some tall tales and sketched dark scenarios that didn't come to pass, though some might have if the crisis had lasted weeks or months longer. The shutdown played out over two installments totaling 26 days from mid-November 1995 to early January 1996.
National park properties closed (yes, even the Washington Monument), passport and federal mortgage insurance processing were disrupted and toxic waste cleanup stalled as hundreds of thousands of federal workers went idle, paid retroactively later. But states, communities and private groups stepped up to tide over the neediest, keeping Meals on Wheels rolling with their own resources, for example, until Clinton found emergency money to cover the costs. Warnings that Medicare treatment would be withheld proved unfounded, and veterans got their care.
Contractors, who perform many key services for government, kept working for IOUs. A claim by the government that deportations "have virtually ended" was not so.
The Justice Department told the story of a Florida gas station rejecting the government-issued credit card of a drug-enforcement agent to illustrate the indignity of it all.
But the reality was humdrum: The card had merely expired.
Turns out politicians are people, too, only worse.
Just ask pros who make their living in the trenches of everyday human drama such as divorce, family feuds or schoolyard scraps. They recognize in Washington's bitter budget standoff a hint of human nature as they know it, but with the crazy pumped up to absurd levels.
"We're seeing middle school behavior here," says Barbara Coloroso, who crusades against childhood bullying.
Psychologist Piers Steel, an expert on procrastination, says Congress has the worst case of it he's seen.
Divorce attorney Sanford Ain's assessment is blunter: "It's nuts!"
A sampling of conflict-savvy professionals and scholars interviewed by The Associated Press finds dismay that the nation is in political stalemate after two years of showdowns and near-misses for the economy. Not that these they have any easy solutions, either.
Some dream of locking up President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. R-Ohio, together until the nation's tax and spending issues are settled.
"That's my fantasy: To go into a room and tell them what to do, right or wrong, and make them do it," said Marvin McIntyre, a prominent financial adviser in the District of Columbia who writes political novels on the side.
With lawmakers and the president on the brink of yet another compromise-or-else deadline Friday, the nonpoliticians shared their take on the all-too-human behavior in Washington.
Historian Altina Waller is reminded of the Hatfields and McCoys.
Of course, she would be: Waller's an authority on the deadly 19th century feud.
Despite the myth, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict wasn't primarily about clan hatred, Waller said, and she doesn't think today's acrimony between Republicans and Democrats is fully explained by partisanship or ideology.
The Appalachian feud grew out of economic anxiety as farming declined and logging and coal moved in, she said. These days, Democrats and Republicans worry about the economy and the loss of American jobs and influence to foreign competition, and blame each other.
"Like the Hatfields and McCoys," Waller said, "they are personalizing a problem brought about by larger economic forces."
Coloroso, author of "The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander," sees too many politicians acting like the mean girl who taunts unpopular classmates in the cafeteria.
"Bullying is about contempt for the other person," Coloroso said. "Do you see how that fits with some of the people in Congress? Utter contempt, bullying, wanting to bring somebody down. You cannot resolve a major issue like a budget with name-calling, with disdain for the person you're supposed to be working with."
Ain says the political fight illustrates something he's learned in 40 years of striving to keep family law cases amicable: "If you have extreme views and won't compromise, you can't get anything done. It's going to go to war."
Yet a sudden switch to civility will not guarantee that tough decisions get made.
Human brains are wired to put off the unpleasant, says "The Procrastination Equation" author Piers Steel.
We postpone starting a diet, put off going to the gym, keep meaning to write those thank-you notes. Congress members are masters of this.
"They're pretty much the worst, hands down, of any group we ever investigated," said Steel, who has researched procrastination for more than a decade. "They're worse than college students."
What finally gets people moving? A deadline. The paper must be written to pass the class. The house is tidied because company's coming. The expense report is finished because the boss demands it by 5 p.m.
So it makes sense to set deadlines for solving the nation's pressing fiscal problems. Only it isn't working.
Congress and the White House have lurched from the brink of default or government shutdown or "fiscal cliff" to the next potentially disastrous deadline, this time automatic budget cuts known as the "sequester." They've only achieved temporary fixes without resolving the big disagreements over the deficit, taxes and Medicare and Social Security spending. Obama calls it "drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."
Why aren't the deadlines working?
Pushing the limits isn't always procrastination; sometimes it's strategy.
Negotiation expert Robert Mnookin points to labor disputes resolved just before the strike deadline and lawsuits settled on the courthouse steps on the eve of trial. Bargainers tend to play "chicken" like two drivers speeding toward each other in hopes the other will swerve first.
"It's often believed that you won't be able to extract the very best concession from the other side unless you are on the brink of something that's very bad," said Mnookin, chairman of Harvard's Program on Negotiation and author of "Bargaining with the Devil."
Both the Republicans and Democrats have die-hards pushing to keep charging ahead.
"It's a hugely dangerous game to play," Mnookin warns, "because people aren't always rational in their behavior."
What happens if Democrats and Republicans collide head-on this time? Some $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts over the next seven months, with more in following years.
Obama says that would weaken the military, disrupt programs Americans rely on, eliminate jobs and weaken the economy. Boehner calls it "an ugly and dangerous way" to reduce spending. These cuts were designed to be so distasteful that politicians would agree on more rational budget-cutting to stop them.
But there's another way out. Lawmakers and Obama could agree to block the cuts, before or after they kick in, and once again postpone making big fiscal decisions that might cost some of them re-election.
That's a problem with artificial deadlines: They're hard to enforce.
Economist Christopher Kingston, whose research ranges from 19th century dueling to modern game theory, says what lawmakers need is a strong "commitment device." He cites the story of William the Conqueror burning his ships after his invading army landed in England, ensuring his soldiers couldn't retreat.
A less reliable commitment device: A shopaholic cutting up his credit cards. That works unless he gets new ones and start running up debt again.
"It's really hard to create a commitment device artificially, particularly if you don't have an external power that's going to enforce it," said Kingston, an associate professor at Amherst College.
Congress and the president have no judge, no referee, no board of directors. Washington won't hear from the voters again for two years, and even then the message may be unclear.
With human nature against them, how can politicians escape gridlock?
A few tips from the pros:
-Shock them with kindness. "Try to do something unexpectedly nice for the other side," advises Ain, and your surprised opponent may reciprocate.
-Avoid the "zero-sum" trap. Just because something is good for one side doesn't mean it's bad for the other. "There are all kinds of deals that the president and the Congress could make that would be better for the economy and the nation as a whole and in that sense would benefit them all," Mnookin says.
-Get a mediator. Maybe the special 2011 deficit committee could have reached agreement with the help of a trusted outsider. It's worth a try, Ain says, because "that works in major litigation and all sorts of situations."
-Shame the bullies. If politicians denounced their fellow party members who display contempt for the other side, Coloroso says, it would squelch the mocking tone.
America's citizens also are mostly silent bystanders right now, the author said.
"What are we going to do about it?" she asked. "Do we just stand by and shrug our shoulders?"