Longer lines at the border and the airport are expected if across-the-board federal spending cuts kick in as expected on Friday, March 1.
A longer-term ripple in the economy can be avoided, however, if Congress passes significant budget legislation within the next month, said U.S. Rep Rick Larsen, D-Everett, in a press conference on Monday, Feb. 25.
Larsen said U.S. lawmakers may not reach agreement on how to stop the cuts, or sequestration, that would go into effect at the end of this week. There is time, he said, for them to come to terms before the possible shutdown of the federal government on March 27.
"I presume March 1 will come and March 1 will go, and the sequester will kick in," Larsen said. "This week will represent the official kickoff of the next three weeks of work."
Cuts will be made to all federal programs, with no room for creative slicing that would leave more valued programs untouched, Larsen said. Without a near-term solution, less money will come to the Bellingham School District to educate low-income children; to Western Washington University for scientific research; and to the national park system, including possibly North Cascades National Park.
Staffing at the border may not be sufficient to efficiently handle the busiest times of the week for crossings, said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He has been in touch with staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Chamber has been telling Canadians who shop in Whatcom County to avoid crossing between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, Oplinger said.
The 14-day furloughs for "frontline law enforcement personnel" at the border, referred to in a Jan. 31 letter from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the Senate Appropriations Committee, don't appear to be materializing, Oplinger said. Reductions will fall mainly on overtime hours, he said.
"It isn't as bad as we thought it was going to be," he said.
Cuts are more uncertain at the Transportation Security Administration, which staffs security screenings at airports, including Bellingham International. Until a new schedule for security at the airport is known, Oplinger recommended arriving at the airport about 90 minutes before flying.
"At the latter part of next week we should have a much better idea where the chokepoints are" for air travel, Oplinger said.
Even if sequestration happens, funding for airport security and border officers should be restored quickly, Oplinger said, after Congress weighs security concerns and public outcry over flight delays.
"I have no reason for that optimism, I'm just trying to read the tea leaves," he said.
Safety-net programs provided locally by the Opportunity Council will probably get cut by 5.3 percent, said Dave Finet, the council's executive director.
Programs that could be reduced include preschool classes through Head Start, assistance for heating-bill payments, and homeless housing programs, Finet said.
"We're pretty resilient in dealing with situations like this, but sometimes we really don't know what it means until it happens," he said.