WASHINGTON — Federal agencies are sharpening their plans for forced spending cuts starting Jan. 2 if the Obama administration and Congress cannot agree on a deficit reduction strategy in the coming days.
Some agencies envision furloughs for federal workers, while others are mapping out how to slow hiring and outside contracting and put programs on hold if the across-the-board reductions known as a sequester kick in, affecting millions of Americans.
With just weeks to go before $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years are set to start, the White House sent word this week to civilian and defense agencies to prepare for the worst to happen.
But the White House may be leading from behind. For months, some managers have been quietly preparing worst-case plans, having grown painfully familiar with budget uncertainty after a near-government shutdown last year and numerous stopgap budgets.
From the federal courts to the National Park Service, agencies have been sweating the logistics on how to shrink their day-to-day operations.
The court system, which faces a $555 million loss next year under an 8.2 percent cut mandated for civilian agencies, is preparing to close some district courts one day a week, impose employee furloughs of up to four weeks and reduce the hours of security officers who guard courthouses.
"We've all developed this master plan that nobody hopes we'll have to enact," said David Sellers, spokesman for the administrative office of the federal courts. A committee of court officials from across the country has met for a year to decide where the system would absorb the cuts, balancing furloughs with delayed trials.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured employees in November that no furloughs or layoffs are planned. Instead, to save money, outside contracts would be stretched out or stopped. The National Park Service has slowed some hiring for the tourist season, a strategy that advocates and former park officials said would have to continue in January.
The Defense Department is likely to impose an immediate hiring freeze on its civilian workforce, said a spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins. Furloughs, rather than layoffs, would begin within a few weeks, she said.
And unions that represent federal workers are dusting off their manuals on when to call for bargaining with management over unpaid furloughs, which would probably be forced on thousands of employees.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen with the fiscal cliff," said Danette Woo, special park uses coordinator at the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, Calif. "What happens is totally out of our control, but it affects our ability to get our job done."
Park managers have prepared a "budget constraint" plan that calls for layoffs of seasonal employees and program cuts, Woo said. Like other agencies, the Park Service in recent months has slowed hiring, travel and training.
At the NRC, "the agency has certainly worked under the assumption that sequestration is a very real possibility," spokesman Scott Burnell said. "We've put the work into understanding how we would go about continuing to operate."
The Office of Management and Budget asked agencies in an internal memo this week for more detailed analysis of their financial operations than was in a 394-page report the White House provided to Congress in September.
That report listed more than 1,200 agencies and federal programs that would lose anywhere from 8.2 percent (domestic) to 9.4 percent (military) of their budgets. About $2.5 billion would be excised from the National Institutes of Health and $555 million from nutrition-aid programs for low-income women, infants and children, for example.
Administration officials called this week's notice "technical" planning given that agencies are living under a temporary budget.