It’s a waiting game right now for those who want to see traffic move smoothly through the Rio Grande Valley’s international bridges.
With hundreds of cars lined up at the ports of entry during peak travel periods, wait times can already stretch on for the passenger cars and commercial trucks looking to get to the other side. But current wait times could eventually extend another two-plus hours — and five-plus hours at some
U.S.-Mexico international bridges — if Congress fails to reach a deal on the
coming sequestration budget cuts.
The extended wait times for drivers at international bridges and for passengers at airports trying to get home would be a visible reminder of how the latest political impasse hits the Valley, said Border Trade Alliance President Nelso Balido, who was provided the two- to five-hour estimates by a federal official. But there is still uncertainty about whether the cuts will go into place and how exactly each federal agency will handle the mandate, making it difficult to gauge their ultimate impact just yet.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to has concerns on how this is going to affect their business,” Balido said. “It’s just hard to really estimate until it starts happening. I don’t know how you can estimate when there are so many variables.”
With only days left until the government is forced to cut $85 billion in domestic and defense spending, attention is turning to how the public will feel the effects of the automatic spending cuts set to start on March 1.
The Federal Aviation Administration included Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport among its list of smaller airports that would see air traffic controllers’ hours reduced if the cuts are implemented. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also warned Friday that the $600 million budget cut to the FAA would mean extended airport waits and limited flight options as a result of the employee furloughs.
Other federal agencies and services would feel the budget axe as well. Facing roughly $500 million in cuts, U.S. Customs and Border Protection would no longer be able to maintain its current staffing levels of Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. The House Appropriations committee estimated that the cuts would force furloughs of those officers between 12 and 14 days in the short-term, but the agency would eventually be required to lay off 2,750 CBP officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents if no deal is reached by April.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned a Senate committee last week that the sequester cuts would have dire consequences for border security and travel, tourism and trade along the border.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said the “sledgehammer approach” to the cuts — with federal agencies given no room to maneuver when implementing them — mean there are concerns across the board about their impact. Vela visited an Alice classroom this past week for Head Start, the pre-school program for low-income children, which could be hit by layoffs affecting more than 14,000 Head Start personnel nationwide.
“They’re all just kind of getting ready,” Vela said. “There may be kind of a sense of disbelief but now the reality of sequestration hitting is getting so close, it’s getting people concerned about what happens.”
The Valley’s House Democrats each expressed uneasiness about how sequestration will affect their districts and said they hoped congressional leaders reach a deal before the spending reductions hit home.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, said people dependent on programs like Social Security and Medicare would feel sequestration’s impact. Although government agencies will have some leeway in their budget after March 1, workers who implement the entitlement programs would be furloughed or laid off.
In the Social Security Administration, most of its workforce could be furloughed for up to 10 days or more, forcing some offices to close early or close altogether, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The furloughs would mean Social Security employees would not be able to process retirement and disability claims or conduct hearings for people seeking benefits.
“When you lay off or furlough so many people, who is going to implement the programs?” Hinojosa said. “If the sequester kicks in, the percentages are set and we have no negotiating to do.”
Although it appears a deal before the March 1 deadline is unlikely to be reached, the brunt of the cuts won’t be immediately evident. The earliest furloughs are scheduled to begin is April 1.
The more immediate concern may be whether Congress can reach a deal by March 27 when the continuing resolution that was passed as a stopgap budget ends. If there is no deal to extend it before then, all but the most essential government functions will be shut down.
It would be the first government shutdown since the 1995-96 stalemate between then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said the sequestration negotiations provide time for Congress and President Barack Obama to reach a deal on a mixture of spending cuts and revenue measures. Any deal that addresses the inflexible sequester cuts should also handle the budget appropriations.
Cuellar said a large problem with sequestration is the cuts are arbitrary, allowing federal agencies no room to set priorities on where their own budgets should be cut. But Cuellar added that the uncertainty caused by the across-the-board cut would have a “ripple effect” on the nation’s economy, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting it would slash economic growth this year in half.
“Once the ripple effect starts affecting the public, when they start seeing lines and how it’s going to hurt them, it’s when Congress will react,” Cuellar said. “Congress is a reactive body, not a proactive body, and, unfortunately, that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Along the border, where CBP, Border Patrol and other federal agencies are large employers, the economic impact could be magnified. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that up to 1.4 million jobs could be lost due to sequestration.
The lack of a budget deal could force federal employees to make their own choices on what bills to pay in their own homes, said George McCubbin III, the national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees. McCubbin, who previously led the National Border Patrol Council, said the combination of furloughs and loss of overtime would result in a 33 percent pay cut for many Border Patrol agents, calling it a “huge financial nightmare” for them and other federal employees.
But he said it would also compromise national security with fewer agents in the field.
“It’s not going to take (smugglers) very much time to figure out there’s not as many people out there, and there’s going to be more border that’s open,” McCubbin said. “The American public needs to be made aware that it’s not just the (federal) employees. The average citizen is going to be affected by this.”