By Lisa Rein
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — This much is clear about the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in Friday: Not all federal agencies are created equal.
Those with the heaviest personnel costs are most likely to start furloughing workers a month from now. They're the employees on the government's front lines, serving the public at airports, national parks, on the border.
And that helps explain how, without a deal in Congress to stop it soon, the austerity program known as sequestration will probably be felt by the American public.
Meat and poultry inspectors, airport security screeners, park rangers — their jobs are routine, monitoring meat production, answering park visitors' questions and making sure planes don't collide in the air.
In other corners of the vast federal bureaucracy, where researchers peer through microscopes and program managers oversee information technology contracts and award grants, the 5.1 percent automatic cuts could reshape priorities. The public probably won't notice the changes quickly.
But for those agencies where salaries and benefits account for as much as 80 percent of the budget — plus hundreds of millions in overtime — the toll on public services in many cases will be unavoidable.
"We don't give grants," said Brian Mabry, spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which plans to furlough much of its workforce of 10,000 for 15 days if the political stalemate over the deficit lingers.
"We can't just stop programs," Mabry said. "People are saying, 'Why can't you just send home all the personnel people and not the inspectors?' Well, there's no way to get from here to there without that."
That's why the food service says the cuts could jack up the price of meat at the supermarket:
The agency is on track to lose more than $50 million from its $1 billion budget. It must shrink the budget over the seven remaining months of the fiscal year. That means a hit of closer to 9 percent. Because inspectors make up 87 percent of the food safety budget, furloughs are the best option.