Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today warned that the budget cuts known as the sequester slated to go into effect on Friday would not only slow the economy by hampering the flow of trade and travelers, but it would also have an impact on national security.
"I dont think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester," Napolitano said during today's White House press briefing, explaining how the widespread cuts would impact her department specifically.
The sequester cuts, which would cut $85 billion from the federal budget this year and $1.1 trillion more over 10 years, would cut force DHS to cut its budget by about 5 percent, Napolitano said. The impact would be significant, she said, since her department is personnel-heavy. The department, for instance, will have to furlough Customs and Border Protection officers and reduce overtime, decreasing the number of hours Border Patrol has to operate between the nation's ports of entry by up to 5,000 agents.
"If you have 5,000 fewer border patrol agents, you have 5,000 fewer border patrol agents," she said. "That has a real impact."
In addition to reducing the number of Border Patrol agents, DHS would have to reduce its maritime efforts, Napolitano said, and reduce its disaster relief fund by nearly $1 billion, potentially affecting survivors of major storms like superstorm Sandy.
"Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts," she said. "Even in the current fiscal climate, we do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without significant impacts."
The secretary said she wasn't trying to "scare" people.
"I'm here to inform," she said. "These effects are the kinds of things people are going to see, and they need to be able to plan for it."
Everyday travelers could directly see the impact of the cuts at international airports, Napolitano said, where the average wait times to clear customs could increase by as much as 50 percent. At the busiest airports, such as Newark, LAX and O'Hare, peak wait times could grow from two hours to four hours or more. Meanwhile, reductions in overtime and hiring freezes affecting transportation security officers (TSO) will increase domestic passenger wait times at the busiest airports.
"These are the effects that we'll accrue," Napolitano said. "Please don't yell at the customs officer or the TSO officer because the lines are long -- the lines over the next few weeks are going to start to lengthen in some dramatic ways in some parts of the country."
The impact of the budget cuts won't be felt immediately, she said. "It'll be like a rolling ball, it'll keep growing." And combined with the cuts to other departments like the Transportation Department, she said, "You really have a perfect storm in terms of the ability to move around the country."
Business as well as travel will be impacted, Napolitano continued, with delays in container examinations at seaports increasing up to five days. "We work on a real-time inventory economy," she said. "that translates into lots and lots of jobs -- good paying jobs."