Federal Lawyers Brace for the Budget Sequester

Federally-employed lawyers are preparing for deep budget cuts, set to begin on Friday, March 1, that could ultimately bring about layoffs and operation slowdowns across the government. The across-the-board budget cuts, known in budget parlance as a sequester, will affect federal spending and operations in every state, including legal activities. Congress and the President are not expected to reach agreement on a plan to avert the cuts before they begin to kick-in on Friday.

The spending cuts could also affect the operations of the federal courts. The Federal Bar Association, in letters to Congress on February 19, urged Congress to assure adequate funding for the federal judiciary to provide for the continued administration of justice. FBA's concerns also were highlighted in a recent CNN report on the impact of the sequester on the federal courts. Reductions in federal court funding under sequestration could bring about a range of adverse consequences, diminish public safety and threaten economic recovery.

The specific impact of the sequester will vary from federal agency to agency and, but in most cases will begin to result in employee furloughs in mid-April. Federally-employed lawyers in most agencies have already received notices informing them of potential furloughs, ranging between seven to as many as 22 days, between mid-April and September 30. Federal employees will not be paid for furlough days.

The sequester — worth $1.2 trillion over 10 years — orders across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts to agency programs, sparing only some mandatory programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. The sequester is the result of a 2011 deal forged by the White House and Congress to reduce federal borrowing. It was intended as a draconian measure so blunt that it would force lawmakers to find alternative means of reducing the budget deficit. But while lawmakers in both chambers have both made suggestions for how to do so, no plan has gotten enough support to pass Congress.

In late March, another spending showdown between President Obama and the Congress will occur over the continuation of government funding for the remainder of the fiscal year. That showdown will be prompted by the expiration of the Continuing Resolution, or CR, that has kept government operations funded. It could result in an actual shutdown in government operations, although a variety of scenarios could play out. Ultimately, an agreement between the President and the Congress over the CR and the sequester is likely to be reached at some point, in late March or early April.