Get ready, folks. The much-dreaded fiscal budget sequester may take effect in less than five days.
And if it happens March 1, the effect of $85 billion in automatic cuts across the breadth of the federal government during the next seven months could affect your life in ways big and small.
If there is any good news to report, it's that none of the impending budget cuts, if allowed to go through, would take place immediately.
Instead, the sequester's first effects won't materialize for at least 45 days. That period includes the 30-day notice that federal employers must give workers in the event of layoffs and furloughs, according to Doug Mehring, a Scott Air Force Base employee and local leader of the National Association of Government Employees, which represents nearly 2,000 Scott civilian employees.
Before the 45 days are up, however, Congress and the White House will likely work out a deal to end the sequester and avert the angry public reaction it would touch off, Mehring predicted.
But if that doesn't happen, then get ready for the closure of dozens of regional airports nationwide, including nine in Illinois, including St. Louis Regional in Alton, Southern Illinois in Carbondale and Williamson County in Marion, according to an advisory released Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Get ready for fewer flights, worse delays and longer lines at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, as well as other major airports nationwide, because of hiring freezes and unpaid furloughs planned for baggage screeners and air traffic controllers, according to advisories posted by the Transportation Security Administration -- the target of $323 million in cuts -- and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is poised to take a $600 million sequester-triggered hit.
Get ready for shorter hours of operation at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, home of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, whose rangers are also set to be sent home on unpaid furloughs because of the nearly $140 million hit the National Park Service is set to absorb.
The sequester-induced cuts would mean that key areas of the nation's nearly 400 other national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, will either open late this year or be kept closed to the public. Compounding this problem will be the fact these cuts are set to hit hardest in spring and summer, the parks' busiest times of the year, according to the Associated Press.
And of course, get ready for the shot to the metro-east economy when as many as 4,500 civilian employees out of 7,000 at Scott Air Force Base -- by far the region's biggest employer -- are forced to take a weekly unpaid day of vacation for the next 22 weeks, causing direct economic losses of at least $28 million, according to U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville.
But that'll be just the beginning as more than $43 billion worth of Department of Defense cuts caused by the sequester work their way in the months ahead through the economies of hundreds of towns dependent on military spending.
The resulting uncertainty will cause people to lose confidence and cut their personal spending, further exacerbating the problem, according to Fred McNitt, of MCR Federal, in O'Fallon, a contractor that analyzes budgets at Scott.
"There's the follow-on stream of 'Hell, I'm not spending. I don't have money to spend because of that cut,'" McNitt said. "That's a significant multiplier as it works through the economy."
No matter what happens, Scott Air Force Base employees remain anxious about their futures, said Mehring, the union representative.
"I think most of them want to see it over with," said Mehring, who works as a bricklayer at the base. "They don't want to kick the can down the road again."
Mehring noted that many civilian employees at Scott earn less than $35,000 a year.
"And to take a 20 percent pay cut, I don't see how they can make it," he said.
The sequester's impact is not spread equally across federal agencies.
For instance, while up to 700,000 of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian could be forced to take 22 days of unpaid vacation time over the next five months, workers at the Environmental Protection Agency will only have to take six unpaid furlough days.
All told, the Defense Department's projected $42.7 billion in cuts adds up to almost 8 percent of the Pentagon's yearly budget.
This compares to nearly $29 billion in domestic discretionary cuts, or 5.3 percent, of federal agency budgets, and nearly $10 billion in Medicare cuts, which amounts to 2 percent, according to federal figures.
Social Security won't be touched by the sequester.
Two reasons account for why the Defense Department has been singled out for the worst set of cuts, according to David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa.
First, because the Defense Department, with an annual allocation surpassing $700 billion, is the largest single component of the federal budget.
And second, it stems from the old city hall budget-cutting gambit of laying off firefighters and police officers first in a financial shortage. It's a bold, scary way of grabbing everyone's attention, Swenson said.
"Part of the aim (of the sequester) was to make sure you offer something to make members of the House and Senate sit up and pay attention," Swenson said.
The sequester is a by-product of the negotiations late last year that avoided the "fiscal cliff." The aim was to come up with a penalty so unpleasant and unpopular, so downright nasty, that it would force Democrats and Republicans, after years of stalling, to devise a strategy for making a substantial dent in the nation's $16 trillion debt.
The impasse leading up to the March 1 sequester stems from the stark difference in how Democratic and GOP leaders wish to achieve this outcome.
President Barack Obama want to use a mix of tax increases and spending reductions, including cuts in farm subsidies. Republicans, in contrast, want to replace cuts in defense spending with cuts in social programs, such as food stamps, regulatory agencies and the national health plan known as the Affordable Care Act.
If the full range of sequester-induced budget cuts go through, one result could be the loss of at least 750,000 jobs across the nation's economy. That could easily push the American economy back into recession, Swenson said.
"The odds are high, not necessarily for a long-term recession, but the odds are high that if indeed we have to realize this much in cuts without some sort of revenue enhancements," then the nation will be heading back to recession, Swenson said.
Enyart and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, the other metro-east freshmen representative, expressed pessimism that a deal can be made to avoid the sequester before the March 1 deadline.
Enyart said he expects to speak on the House floor after that chamber reconvenes on Monday to urge "members to plan together and get this resolved. I think the negotiations are ongoing, that there are two sides to it. And I'd like to see a compromise solution be reached."
Enyart said he wanted to see a compromise package approved that is not based entirely on budget cuts.
"I think that if America is going to stop borrowing money, you cannot get there by cuts alone," he said. "The numbers simply don't add up. If you fired the entire Department of Defense, including everybody in uniform, not just the civilian employees, if you fired the entire Department of Defense tomorrow, it doesn't solve the deficit."
Davis also expressed pessimism about Congress' ability to avoid the March 1 deadline.
"Now it's become a political blame game," he said. "All it is is another artificial deadline that's going have a severe impact on the hardworking taxpayers of the metro-east."
Davis, though, expressed hope that someday Republicans and Democrats can work together effectively again. He recalled the 1995 conflicts between then-President Bill Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich that led to a government shutdown.
But in the aftermath of that debacle, Clinton and Gingrich came back highly motivated to overcome their differences. They ended up with a compromise deal that led to an era of balanced budgets, a national budget surplus and economic prosperity, Davis said.
"Not everyone got what they wanted, but everyone got enough of what they wanted," Davis said. "And look at what that did for our country. I guarantee we can do that."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.