"You're real people," the Maryland Democrat told hundreds of federal workers Friday at a town hall meeting. "You have real lives. You've got families, and you're on the front lines of public service. Public service. Don't be afraid to point that out.
"So help us with personalizing what you do on behalf of your country."
Cardin visited NIH's Bethesda campus to take questions on budget negotiations and the sequester — deep, across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 if lawmakers are unable to agree to a deficit-reduction plan.
With the deadline less than three weeks away, the sides remain divided. Democrats favor what they call a "balanced approach" to reducing deficits — a combination of spending cuts and tax increases — while Republicans are focused on spending cuts only.
As Cardin spoke, the White House released a long list of federal agencies and programs that would be affected by the cuts. They include the NIH, which the administration said "would be forced to delay or halt vital scientific projects and make hundreds of fewer research awards," leading to possible job losses for "several thousand personnel."
"Many projects would be difficult to pursue at reduced levels and would need to be canceled, putting prior year investments at risk," the White House said. "These cuts would delay progress on the prevention of debilitating chronic conditions that are costly to society and delay development of more effective treatments for common and rare diseases affecting millions of Americans."
Beyond the NIH, the administration described wide-ranging impacts of the "large and arbitrary cuts": children kicked out of Head Start, reductions in the number of food inspections, loans to small businesses lost, fewer federal cases prosecuted, mentally ill patients going untreated.
"Across the government we'll see assistance programs slashed, we'll see contracts cut, we'll see employees out of work. And we'll have no choice," said Danny Werfel of the Office of Management and Budget. "The blunt, irresponsible and severe nature of sequestration means that we can't plan our way out of these consequences or take steps to soften the blow.
"That's why it is so critical that Congress acts swiftly to avoid these cuts through a balanced approach to further deficit reduction."
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the 150,000-member National Treasury Employees Union, called the White House list "a look into a reality our country can and must avoid."
"There are those in Congress to whom sequestration is just another political bargaining chip," Kelley said. "The realities laid bare by this fact sheet clearly show that sequestration would be a disaster, and would slow economic growth and job creation."
"The impacts of sequester are devastating to the American people and the American economy," said the Maryland Democrat, who had asked agencies to gather information on the effects. "The public has a right to understand how the government services they rely on will be impacted."
At the NIH, Cardin said the cuts would "cause significant damage to our national security readiness, to our commitment to provide essential services to the people of this country and to our economy." They would have "a real impact" on Maryland, he said, with its concentration of federal workers and contractors.
But he said it was "not likely" that Congress would reach an agreement by March 1. Given that, he said he would support a short-term fix — an agreement on some deficit reduction, perhaps, in order to push the deadline back.
One NIH worker asked if anyone had attempted to assess the cost of time "wasted" in "debating, reviewing and implementing contingency plans" for the sequester, and suggested savings from wasting more time could pay for some of the cuts.
The question drew laughter.
"We want your creative people here to do the work that they're trained to do," Cardin said. "That is, we want you to discover the next cure for a dread disease, we want you to figure out how to energize creative innovators on research, providing the basic research so the life science companies that are out there can create more jobs."
"When you're distracted and doing all these contingency plans — worse than that, when you start saying we'd better hold back on some of the things we would like to do because we don't know what's coming next ... it's way past time for Congress to give you a definitive answer."
Asked about news reports that some members of Congress might welcome the sequester as a means of cutting government spending, Cardin said there weren't many who felt that way.
"Most members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that sequestration is wrong," he said. "Even those who believe there should be further discretionary cuts believe they should be selective. They shouldn't be across the board.
"If you have problems with your budget, and you've budgeted to go to the movies and feed your family, and you have a loss of revenue, you don't cut your spending equally. You continue the essentially important services for your family. We can't do that under sequestration."
Cardin told the federal workers that they have been made a "scapegoat for everything."
"It's an attack on government," he said. "It's not an attack on what you do. So go out there and say what you do. And how it's important for what you do to have the certainty of a realistic budget."
He said the majority of Americans "strongly support" the work of the NIH, and want to make sure that it is funded adequately. He urged the workers to make themselves heard.
"We're having a tough time breaking through the divisions that we have in Washington," he said. "And quite frankly, the more that you can do to underscore the importance of the work that you do, I think the stronger the voice will be for a reasonable solution to our fiscal problems that will permit NIH to get the funding it needs."