While Washington officials and reporters are practically zombie-walking around town chanting “sequester” like “redrum,” a poll out from The Hill this morning shows that about two-thirds of voters don’t know what the word means. Some were even under the impression that sequestering involved pitching an elected official out of office. Part of the problem is that the word and its definition aren’t obvious bedfellows.
Sequester is set to become the fiscal cliff on 2013, yet this year’s buzzword lacks the figurative simplicity of last year’s. Yes, economists said that “fiscal slope” was a more accurate characterization, but the popular shorthand for those foreseen cutbacks in governmental financial support allowed people to get this gist. Fiscal = money-related. Going over a cliff = risky business. In The Hill poll, 25% of voters admitted that they don’t know what a “sequester” is. And almost 40% chose the wrong answer (e.g. an upcoming ruling on the federal budget by the Supreme Court).
A sequester sounds like it could be just about anything: a time when members of Congress lock themselves in a room until they come to a compromise or a person who roams around in a submarine seeking underwater adventure. The word also has many actual meanings, most as esoteric as sequester sounds. A quick flip through the Oxford English Dictionary will reveal that sequester once referred to a person who held a disputed object during a court battle–and more generally, a legal mediator. Sequestration also refers to the government seizing the goods of citizens and can even identify the formation of a sequestrum, a detached piece of bone lying within a body cavity caused by necrosis.
Here is a good definition for what it actually means in politico parlance:
sequester (n.): in government, an automatic form of spending cut enacted to resolve a gap between budget goals and appropriations; short for sequestration.
A more specific definition for the government’s current conundrum would be across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs that are set to go into effect on March 1, unless averted by Congress. The correct response that The Hill provided respondents in their poll was, more simply, “a package of spending cuts that will soon take effect.” In the interest of making this more clear to the public, pundits might consider using a more straight-forward moniker–like “fiscal guillotine” or “super slash,” because we all know how politicians like to plop super in front of things. (See: super committee, super PAC, Super Tuesday, Super-Duper Tuesday)
While Swampland’s regular readers would certainly have found themselves in the one-third who could correctly define the term, let us know if you have ideas for a better name in the comments below.