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Sequester In South Carolina: A Tale Of Fighter Jets And Preschools

Four F-16s from the 77th Fighter Squadron of Shaw Air Force Base fly over Darlington Raceway before a NASCAR race in Darlington, S.C., in May 2012.
Geoff Burke
Getty Images for NASCAR
Four F-16s from the 77th Fighter Squadron of Shaw Air Force Base fly over Darlington Raceway before a NASCAR race in Darlington, S.C., in May 2012.

In Sumter, S.C., home of Shaw Air Force Base and the 20th Fighter Wing, cars sport bumper stickers that say, "Jet noise is the sound of freedom."

Throughout the day, F-16s on training runs blast from a runway on base, disappearing into the foggy sky. But if automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts slated for March 1 go into effect, there will be a lot less of that sound.

"To cut to that level, we just could not pay for the amount of flying hours that we currently have," says Capt. Ann Blodzinski, the base's chief of public affairs.

Air Force officials say 200,000 flying hours would have to be slashed between now and the end of September. Blodzinski says that would have all kinds of consequences.

"When jets sit, they break, so the longer they sit, you can't just bring everything back up," she says. "You can't just bring the pilots right back up to being ready to fly."

Scheduled maintenance wouldn't happen on schedule; runway repairs would be delayed. And while uniformed personnel would continue to get paid, hundreds of thousands of civilians would face 22 days of unpaid furlough.

Rob Sexton, who works with Blodzinski, is one of them.

"For most of us, in dollars and cents, that means about a 20 percent pay cut," he says.

Sexton says everyone he runs into is talking about it, scraping for every bit of news they can find about what might come out of Washington.

"In a sense, it's like sitting in New Jersey waiting for Hurricane Sandy to hit," he says, "because you know there's a storm coming, but you don't know how big it's going to be, how bad it's going to be, how long it's going to be."

Whom To Cut?

Just up Broad Street from the base, things are pretty quiet at the Goodwin Auto Mall. Owner Cliff Goodwin says people affiliated with the base account for about a third of his business.

"I wonder if it'll be similar to the fiscal cliff that we all worried about so much — just a lot of hype, and then it'll ultimately be resolved in a good, common-sense manner," Goodwin says.

Waiting, watching and hoping is what Linnie Miller is doing, too. She's the Head Start director with Carolina Community Actions Inc., which serves about 850 children — 3- and 4-year-olds — including two classrooms of kids at the Avery Lake affordable housing complex.

"The problem that we have is deciding which children," Miller says. Which children to kick out of the program, she means.

She's looking at a classroom full of children: a group drawing cars; a couple on the computer working on letters; others playing with blocks and trains. If the sequester goes through, Miller says, the only way to cut enough costs would be to lay off instructors. They would have to eliminate three classes — 51 children.

"Which children do you choose? Which families do you think could go without the service and they'll be OK?" she says. "And I don't think there's any family that we serve that would not be affected in a negative way."

'What's The Big Deal?'

And so, with all this worry about the spending cuts, you would expect the sequester to be a major topic of discussion at Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney's recent town hall meeting in nearby Rock Hill, S.C.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., hosts a town hall in his home district.
Tamara Keith / NPR
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., hosts a town hall in his home district.

As he does at every town hall, Mulvaney opens the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation about "hot topics." He is plain-spoken and breaks down the big numbers of the federal budget so they are easily understood. Every seat is taken in the auditorium, with some people standing in the back.

"The sequester cuts are real cuts," he says. "They're cuts in the way that you and I would understand them as normal human beings. They're not Washington cuts."

He says the across-the-board nature of the cuts to military spending are not the best way to do this, and then moves on to other topics. In a full two hours of questions from the audience, not a single person asks about the sequester.

"Does that surprise you — that Washington cares about something that people back home don't?" he says later in an interview.

Mulvaney describes himself as one of the most conservative members of Congress, and judging from the questions, the audience at the meeting was largely conservative as well.

"To the extent that it would come up," Mulvaney says, "I think people would here say, 'What's the big deal?' "

He would like to see the sequester cuts replaced with other, more strategic cuts. But while Mulvaney has no idea how this will ultimately pan out, he is certain it won't live up to the hype.

"I'm comfortable that the federal government will continue to exist after the sequester. I don't think people are going to, you know, go to the streets and revolt when the U.S. Department of Commerce has to go back a couple of years in their budgets," he says.

A poll out this week from Pew and USA Today finds 4 in 10 people believe that if Congress and the president can't reach a deal, the cuts should be allowed to go into effect.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.