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Sequestration is here; we sort the facts

By Molly Moorhead
Published on Monday, March 4th, 2013 at 11:02 a.m.

The canons were set to fire Friday in Washington’s latest fiscal showdown  -- sequestration -- when President Barack Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives couldn't hammer out a last-minute deal.

Federal agencies will be hit with across-the-board budget cuts that are the result of a law passed in 2011, which neither side wants to claim now.

In Washington, the claims were -- and still are -- flying about who’s to blame for this mess, and what will be left in puddles on the floor.

At PolitiFact, we’ve looked into numerous statements about the impact of the sequester’s sweeping cuts.

Obama, in a speech at the White House, said the policy is indiscriminate and "won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness, or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn’t make those distinctions."

We found that he glossed over the discretion that agency heads will have in distributing the cuts, but he’s right that sequestration does not take into account which programs are needed vs. which are extraneous. Our rating: Mostly True.

But our fact-checking also found that the president has exaggerated some of the specifics.

Obama said "hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings" under sequestration. One widely cited estimate found that sequester cuts to two programs alone would leave 246,000 people without the types of services Obama mentioned. But those two programs were aimed specifically at flu vaccines and cancer screenings. They didn’t provide general primary care. We rated the claim Half True.

He also warned that "tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids." But Obama’s numbers are more of a worst-case scenario than a proven number. We gave him another Half True.

Obama waded into hyperbole when he said that as a result of sequestration, federal prosecutors would have to "let criminals go." It’s clear that U.S. Attorney’s offices are looking at a funding cut that would hinder prosecutions in some fashion. However, officials will have a fair amount of discretion in prioritizing what types of cases to pursue, possibly cutting back on civil cases rather than criminal ones. And the cuts wouldn't directly affect "criminals" at all, but rather suspects whose guilt has not been determined. Obama’s overreach earned a Mostly False.

Finally, we looked at Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s assertion that sequestration will delay commercial flights. The FAA says the budget cut will force it to furlough air traffic controllers, without whom the nation’s air travel can’t fully function. Experts told us that the agency has considerable flexibility in keeping controllers on the job. Still, furloughs are a looming reality. Prepare for even longer waits at the airport, folks. This one’s Mostly True.

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