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Judy’s Notebook: On Sequestration, Smartphone Apps and Girls’ Volleyball

If you spend enough time in or around Washington, you’ll meet amazing people who work for the government. A cancer researcher at the National Institutes of Health, an investigator with the FBI, a long-time receptionist at Treasury, an engineer who works at the Department of Energy — the great majority of them get little or no public notice. Occasionally, a few are recognized through programs like the “Sammy Awards,” presented by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit dedicated to “revitalizing” public service “by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.”

I’ve written about the Partnership before, because every year they single out a handful of extraordinary federal employees. In 2012, for example, two of the people they honored were Customs & Border Protection agency managers Nael Samha and Thomas Roland, for a smartphone application they created that allows agents in the field to access law enforcement databases in real time, which “led to enforcement actions against more than 450 drug traffickers, weapons smugglers, illegal immigrants and potential terror suspects.”

I’m thinking about Samha and Roland this week, because as Congress and the White House remain far apart on how to avoid $85 billion dollars in across-the-board federal spending cuts, government workers face uncertainty. The FBI told reporters Wednesday the cuts would require all its employees, including special agents, to be furloughed for up to 14 days. The Defense Department would be asked to cut $46 billion dollars, affecting training, future weapons acquisition and furloughs for civilians on its payroll.

It’s true that most of the cuts would be phased in, and if the two sides come to agreement they can avoid them altogether. But if they do kick in, the effects will be felt by ordinary Americans who benefit from the work of federal employees. Wait times at the nation’s busiest airports could increase as security screeners face furloughs. The Food and Drug Administration would be forced to cut back on food inspections. This, on top of benefit cuts for the 4.7 million long-term unemployed and potential cuts to Head Start and nutrition programs for low-income women and their children.

GOP skeptics say the projections are exaggerated, that the Obama administration is hyping the consequences of the so-called sequester to put pressure on congressional Republicans to go along with tax loophole – closings and other revenue raisers. It won’t be long before we’ll find out if that’s right, because the deadline for agreement is March 1, and there are just a few business days between now and then. Whichever side you favor, the American public appears to be weary at best — and disgusted at worst — by yet one more example of Washington brinksmanship.

So it was a happy surprise that I came across an event last weekend that drew folks who were glad to be in Washington. It was the Seventh Annual Capitol Hill Classic, a competitive East Coast girls’ volleyball tournament drawing young women between 12 and 18 years of age from the Carolinas to New England. Over 1,400 talented athletes, plus coaches and family members, converged on the Washington Convention Center, divided across 100 volleyball courts. Watching the daughter of a friend play on Sunday morning, I couldn’t find a cynical face in the crowd of cheering, excited players and families. And no one was talking about the sequester.

Capitol Hill Classic

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