The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is preparing for the worst with the blunt tool of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which is scheduled to kick in March 1 unless Congress acts to replace it with a more measured deficit-reduction package.
In testimony last Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the automatic budget cuts resulting from the 2011 debt-ceiling agreement would diminish border security, increase wait times at ports of entry and airports, affect aviation and maritime safety and crimp the department's effectiveness in infrastructure protection, cybersecurity and disaster response.
The lead agency responsible for facilitating cross-border trade and ensuring cargo and travelers do not pose a risk to national security is Customs and Border Protection.
CBP "would not be able to maintain current staffing levels of Border Patrol agents and CBP officers as mandated by Congress. Funding and staffing reductions will increase wait times at airports, affect security between land ports of entry, affect CBP's ability to collect revenue owed to the federal government, and slow screening and entry programs for those traveling into the United States," she said.
The Coast Guard would have to cut back air and maritime operations by nearly 25 percent, which would have a substantial impact on maintaining aids to navigation, and monitoring security of vessels entering U.S. waters, among other missions.
Agencies, such as CBP, will have to implement furloughs of 12 to 14 days for every frontline law enforcement officer and some people at headquarters could be laid off, Napolitano added.
Beginning April 1, CBP would have to reduce its work hours by the equivalent of over 2,750 CBP officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents, including cutbacks in overtime.
"Reduced CBP staffing would make four to five hour wait times commonplace and cause the busiest ports to face gridlock situations at peak periods" and furloughs of TSA officers could add an hour to check-in at busy airports, she warned. Important technology investments are also at risk.
"While we will continue to preserve our frontline priorities as best we can, no amount of planning can mitigate the negative effects of sequestration. DHS simply cannot absorb the additional reduction posed by sequestration without significantly and negatively affecting frontline operations and our nation's previous investments in homeland security," she said.
If sequestration takes effect, the federal government will have to implement an $85 billion cut to its 2013 budget over seven months - the time remaining in the current fiscal year. Over 10 years, the cuts total $1.2 trillion - split evenly between defense and domestic discretinary programs. The sequester was pushed back to March 1 as part of the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff
at the the beginning of January. - Eric Kulisch