Nation's capital gripped by 'sequester stress'

President Barack Obama delivers remarks joined by emergency responders to urge action to avoid the automatic budget cuts scheduled to hit next Friday if Congress fails to find a path forward on balanced deficit reduction during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2013.

Jennifer Lachman is executive director of MAG.

Dionna Collins is smoking twice as much now, because of sequester stress.

Shelli Goldzband says the sequester is out of her hands.

Sterling Mehring is a realtor in Washington, DC.

We’re a strange breed here in Washington, a city of geeks. We follow the lurchings of Congress like normal people follow their favorite baseball team. We kind of have to. Government is the biggest game in town. But now it’s getting ridiculous.

We're less than two weeks away from the latest fiscal crisis du jour -- the so-called "sequester." It's a package of billions in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that were supposed to be so harsh Congress would never let them happen.

Sequester stress is seeping into every corner of my life. My day usually begins with a caffeine fix in the kitchen down the hall from the Marketplace bureau. There’s a cluster of offices around the kitchen. I’ve got a number of kitchen buddies. One of them is Jennifer Lachman. We grab some coffee, then head into her office. Jennifer is executive director of the U.S. branch of a nonprofit called MAG, which stands for Mines Advisory Group. They remove mines and surplus weapons from war-torn countries. Jennifer’s office gets 95 percent of its funding from the State Department. If the sequester hits, the State Department’s budget would be cut by around 5 percent. Jennifer Lachman knows that could filter down to her. 

“It is one of the most stress inducing situations that I’ve ever faced at work," she tells me.

Jennifer says her staff is banding together to fight the stress, going out to more happy hours and maybe throwing an extra cocktail into the mix. Other sequester sufferers have different ways to cope. At lunchtime, I head out to some downtown food trucks. I meet Dionna Collins. She works at a law firm. It depends on government contracts, which could be cut by the sequester, causing a wave of layoffs.

Collins is very worried. She’s smoking more. I ask how much more.

“Before everything started to fall apart, about a pack a week," she says. "I’m maybe now to a pack every three days.”

Other people I talked to are trying to tune out the sequester buzz. Shelli Goldzband works for a medical research firm. Some of that research is government-funded. She feels powerless to stop the sequester.

She says, “So, I’ve just sort of given up and sort of just am sitting on the sidelines with a bowl of popcorn, watching everything go down in a flaming ball of death.”

OK then, maybe it’s time to move on. Maybe things will be different once I leave work for the day. My neighbors are having a potluck. Hopefully they’re not on a sequester death watch?

No such luck. There’s the usual talk of real estate, but with a sequester tinge. My neighbor Sterling Mehring is a realtor. He says the Washington market has been red hot lately. He even made a few sales over the holidays. But now, he’s worried about a sequester slump.

“I just know how fragile the market is," he says. "It can -- it can stop on a dime.”

At that point, my husband and I head home with our twin toddlers, who are just about the only people in my world not talking about the sequester. And that’s only because they can’t say the word. Unfortunately, they do eventually master it. Then they want to know more. As in any toddler interrogation, one word is repeated over and over: "Why?"

Which, actually, is a very good question.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Jennifer Lachman is executive director of MAG.

Dionna Collins is smoking twice as much now, because of sequester stress.

Shelli Goldzband says the sequester is out of her hands.

Sterling Mehring is a realtor in Washington, DC.

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