Uncertainty Surrounding the Sequester Made a Measurable Difference Even on the Local Level

Watchdog details impacts including larger elementary school classrooms and less-frequent health facility inspections.

Not all the effects of sequestration are quantifiable, but concrete impacts on agencies in fiscal 2013 ranged from skipped medical facility inspections, to lengthier border crossings for truckers, to delayed housing vouchers for the needy, to postponed training for nondeployed military units, Congress’ watchdog reported.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report released on Wednesday to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., summarized the sequester’s impact on six program areas selected for variety. “These case studies illustrate how some spending reductions at the federal level ultimately reduced funding for program partners operating at the local level,” GAO wrote.

The studies “provide further evidence that the uncertainty surrounding the timing and amount of sequestration hampered communication with program partners and recipients,” the report said. 

Auditors reviewed programs within the Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Education, and Health and Human Services departments. They found negative effects on military operations and maintenance, larger elementary school classroom sizes, reduced frequency of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services health care quality surveys, longer wait times for Customs and Border Protection inspections and reduced rental assistance in HUD’s Public and Indian Housing Office.

More specifically, GAO noted a 2.2 percent reduction in the number of very low income households that received rental assistance under the Public and Indian Housing Office between 2012 and 2013. Average wait times for international passengers traveling through CBP inspection booths increased from 19.7 minutes in fiscal 2012 to 22.8 minutes in fiscal 2013 at one airport and from 20.9 minutes to 26.8 minutes at another -- because CBP lacked overtime funds.

GAO reviewed evidence and supporting documents to “assess the reasonableness of components’ estimates of the effects of sequestration on operations, performance and services to the public.”

Some agencies had more discretion in protecting “higher priority activities” by identifying flexibilities or modifying or canceling contracts or other ongoing activities, auditors found. For example the Pentagon postponed training for units not scheduled to deploy in 2014.

But in programs such as HUD’s Housing Choice Vouchers and Education’s Title I, both based on eligibility, GAO wrote, “program partners had to identify specific actions -- such as limiting the number of housing vouchers issued and increasing classroom size -- to absorb the reductions and mitigate their effects on the public.”

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