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SPIN METER: A Dubious List Of Budget 'horribles'

But perish the thought of yellow police tape around Yellowstone. It's far from settled that parks would close. Officials said to expect reduced operating hours, fewer rangers, bathrooms that might be locked and trash that might not be collected as often.

To be sure, the cuts are big and will have consequences. Knowing what they will be, though, is far from a precise exercise.

And there is a lot of improbable precision in administration statements about what could happen: more than 373,000 seriously ill people losing mental health services, 600,000 low-income pregnant women and new mothers losing food aid and nutrition education, 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites, 125,000 poor households going without vouchers, and much more.

"These numbers are just numbers thrown out into the thin air with no anchor, and I think they don't provoke the outrage or concern that the Obama administration seeks," said Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy and budget. For all the dire warnings, he said, "It's not clear who gets hurt by this."

The estimates in many cases come from a simple calculation: Divide the proscribed spending cut by a program's per-person spending to see how many beneficiaries may lose services or benefits under the sequester.

But in practice, through all the layers of bureaucracy and the everyday smoke and mirrors of the federal budget, there is rarely a direct and measurable correlation between a federal dollar and its effect on the ground.

That has meant a lot of tenuous "could happen" warnings by the administration, not so much "will happen" evidence.

So it was in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' letter to Congress laying out likely consequences of the spending cuts for her agency's operations. She said the sequester "could" compromise the well-being of more than 373,000 people who "potentially" would not get needed mental health services, which in turn "could result" in more hospitalizations and homelessness.

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