A Sequester No One Wants

The bickering over the provenance of the sequester belies the fact that very few people in Washington truly know how it will unfold.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks about strengthening the economy for the middle class and measures to combat gun violence during a visit to Hyde Park Academy in Chicago on Feb. 15, 2013.

By the end of the week, everything changes. Severe spending cuts will unleash waves of devastation across the U.S. Picture air travel snarled. Meat inspections curtailed. National security imperiled. Seventy thousand children booted from Head Start programs, 10,000 teaching jobs jeopardized, disability payments delayed, aid withheld from needy Americans and foreign governments perched on the brink of chaos. Hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost, and the fragile economy knocked into a tailspin.

This is the nightmare that would unfold, according to Barack Obama and the heads of federal agencies, if Congress can’t forge a deal to evade sequestration, the $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts over the next decade that is set to kick in March 1. The sequester was designed to be so disastrous that would it would force Washington’s warring factions to the bargaining table. But what was once an unthinkable result has come to seem inevitable. This time there is little hope that dealmakers will swoop in with an 11th-hour reprieve. With the deadline looming four days away, the question enveloping the capital is not whether the sequester will happen, but rather how bad it will be.

(VIDEO: The Sequester Fight: TIME Explains)

As usual, the two parties have crunched the data and come up with wildly divergent conclusions. If the White House envisions economic calamity, many Republicans are treating the sequester more like the Mayan apocalypse. They consider the prospect of lopping $85 billion off the $3.6 trillion federal budget — about a 2.4% cut — to be a good start. A “pittance,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said. If you ask the GOP, the White House’s dire predictions are designed to scare the public and pressure the GOP to acquiesce. And so, when they aren’t trying to pin the policy on Obama, Republicans are working to cast the cuts as modest reductions to a bloated budget.

“No one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play video games, giving folks free cellphones, and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines,” wrote House Speaker John Boehner, who not long ago described the sequester as a “meat axe.” Jeering Obama’s doom-and-gloom tone, the conservative group Crossroads GPS released an ad that juxtaposes Obama’s dire predictions with menacing zombies, mushroom clouds and croaking seniors, to the beat of a whistling tune.

Which side is right? We know the sequester would wreak serious damage if allowed to run its course. But its immediate impact could be mild, and almost nobody in Washington knows how it will be managed before Congress musters the will to replace it. That includes the heads of federal agencies, who are warning of closed national parks, 90-minute flight delays and unemployment checks trimmed some 10%. The number of people in the federal government with intimate knowledge of what will happen if the sequester takes effect on March 1 is likely tiny — perhaps as small as three, says Barry Anderson, a former senior official at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Anderson knows how complicated the process is to predict because he helped direct the last sequester, in 1991. “I’ve been in therapy for the past 22 years,” he jokes.

(MORE: Will Obama or the Republicans Win the Sequester Showdown?)

According to Anderson, OMB has discretion over how to apportion the roughly 5.3% cut to each affected nonmilitary program and 8% hit to each defense program. “The agencies have nothing to do with this,” Anderson says. “It is OMB’s choice.” Deciding how to spread resources to minimize the pain is a tricky task, not least because government agencies have different burdens at different times. The Department of Education, for example, disburses many grants in the summer, so it is partially inoculated from early damage. At the other end of the spectrum, the Department of Defense has already issued furlough notices to 800,000 employees, and the Navy has announced plans to dock stateside an aircraft carrier that had been bound for the Persian Gulf.

“You’ll see variation. In some cases, you’ll see immediate impacts,” OMB federal controller Danny Werfel told reporters on Feb. 8. “And in some cases, agencies will work out those changes to their programs and their structures over time. So there’s no easy answer to say what the world is going to look like on March 2.”

Some experts say it may not look much different. “My educated guess is there will be very little pain in March,” says one nonpartisan budget analyst, who requested anonymity so as not to undermine the bargaining position of an employer. Agencies are required to give at least 30 days’ notice before furloughing federal workers, which means that staffing reductions won’t begin until April. Cuts to critical programs can also be back-loaded to limit the immediate impact. The sequestration order, written as part of the Budget Control Act that averted the debt-limit crisis in 2011, requires an across-the-board haircut to each affected “program, project and activity,” but different line items can absorb the hit at different times. Still, Werfel told reporters during a Sunday conference call, agencies have “limited flexibility” to structure the cuts in a way that safeguards their mission. “When you’re taking an $85 billion cut over a seven-month period, there is no road map of flexibility that allows you to eliminate many, many of the disruptions that are going to occur,” he said.

(MORE: The Sequester: Wasting a Crisis)

There is no question that the sequester would wallop the economy if it remains law. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates sequestration would cost the U.S. some 750,000 jobs by the end of 2013. A report by Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University economist, estimated the policy could cost more than 2 million jobs and raise the unemployment rate by 1.5%. As the March 1 deadline creeps closer, the Administration has slowly begun to detail the gruesome litany of specifics — from the $310,000 hit to an Arkansas program that provides meals for seniors, to reductions in trash pickup in Yosemite, to the 4,180 kids in Georgia who would forego crucial vaccines, to the $1.1 million in law enforcement grants Texas would relinquish.

But while the perils of the sequester are certainly real, the March 1 deadline is somewhat fungible. Even if the sequester kicks in, its impact could be mitigated if Congress rewrites the law as part of a deal to avert a government shutdown by March 27, when federal funding is scheduled to run dry. “That could be the vehicle by which Congress resolves the issue, stops sequestration, and gets the government back on course,” says Scott Lilly, a former appropriations staffer who is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “That would be the optimistic scenario, that somehow these knuckleheads come to their senses within that period of time.”

The sequester’s cuts could be structured to assume that happens, but it would be a big gamble. The two parties are once again at an impasse. Obama insists that any deficit-reduction package crafted to replace sequestration contain new tax revenues. Republicans, who were forced to raise taxes on high earners as part of the fiscal cliff deal on New Year’s Eve, are unwilling to do so again. And so, perhaps with the knowledge that the worst of the pain is unlikely to strike right away, the two parties have skipped negotiations and swapped salvos and hashtags instead.

(VIDEO: Democrats Release Sequester Hit List With 27 GOP Targets)

Obama has launched a campaign-style tour to convince the public that Republican intransigence is to blame. House Republicans think they can pin the policy on the President by noting that the idea originated in the White House (even though it was devised as a mechanism to resolve a debt-ceiling crisis manufactured by the GOP) and reminding voters that they have twice voted to replace the cuts (although those bills expired at the end of the 112th Congress). “The White House needs to spend less time explaining to the press how bad the sequester will be and more time actually working to stop it,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama, who enjoys far higher approval ratings than his opponents, has the stronger political position. A recent Pew Research Center/USA Today poll indicated that roughly half the public would blame Republicans, compared to the 3-in-10 who would blame Obama. If that happens, it might bolster White House efforts to rekindle a grand bargain that includes tax and entitlement reforms.

But because it’s so complicated to forecast the sequester’s impact, it’s impossible to predict the political fallout of an arcane policy that few people understand. The only safe bet appears to be that a policy specifically engineered to be terrible is poised to take effect. “I can understand why the American people would think that these things aren’t actually going to happen, because the Republicans have pushed us to the brink on three or four occasions in the last couple of years,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to come to a solution and avoid [the crisis] this time, but nothing the Republicans are saying right now suggests that by Friday, they’re going to change their position.” If that doesn’t happen, we are about to find out just how bad the sequester will be.

MORE: The Sequester and the GOP’s Wobbly ‘Stool’

304 comments
Ohio50
Ohio50

I think Obama's sequestration is the best idea he's has had since he's been in office.   I just wish it was bigger.   In fact, I would like to see:

  • A forced 20% rightsizing of all government agencies over the next two years.
  • A constitutional amendment to balance the budget
  • A move over the next two years to Fair Tax with no exemptions of any kind
  • A move over the next two years to have all government expenses at all levels posted on the Internet by element of expense in real time with each transaction
  • Eliminate ALL taxes except Fair Tax at all levels of government.
  • Full documentation posted on the Internet in real time of how each level of government intends to allocate the Fair Tax. Allocation to include a distribution to school districts for that portion of the school district within that government's boundary.
  • A running balance sheet posted in real time on the Internet by each level of government.
  • Receipts for all transactions available in real time and posted on the Internet

BenFranklin
BenFranklin

Really, it is going to take at least 20 times this many cuts to make a dent in the deficit and most of the savings will have to come out of Medicare and Social Security since those are the programs driving us into bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, since we have a complete economic illiterate as president we just added Obamacare on top of all of the other entitlements we can't pay for.  Those are just the facts and no amount of crying will change them.  It is time to grow up and realize that the government cannot pay for everything for everyone... and indeed is the least efficient method of trying to provide anything to anyone. 

OldAsDirt
OldAsDirt

A nightmare is only in one's mind. This is an action agreed to 2 years ago by our "representatives" as the best they would do. We elected almost the same representation last fall. This is our choice based on our actions.

KyleSapp
KyleSapp

paid to play videogames, free cellphones and smoke machines ? somebody please tell me where these things are. i know the cellphone thing is just so people can call 911 in emergencey but the other two sound cool..

cuulnig
cuulnig

picture caption is a laugh

thesportsguy27
thesportsguy27

How about cutting benefits to Illegals living in this country or cut Food Stamps or Unemployment or Deport all Illegals in our jails or free cell phones....It is so clear what to cut but Obama doesn't want to upset anyone..You do not see any of that at all mentioned...Just boggles my mind that we are having to cut the important programs to help build our country......

EugenePatrickDevany
EugenePatrickDevany

Some on the right complains that the government is too big and spends too much. If the sequester results in some real pain for the public, congress may be able to consider tax reform and the elimination of the $1.2 trillion in tax expenditures that represent 7.5% of GDP. Under scrutiny, all of the tax expenditures are destructive to the taxpayers and the economy.

MikeFender
MikeFender

If republicans were serious about deficit reduction they would bring their defense spending in line with the next biggest spender. The US could cut 500 billion per year and still outspend China.

TomTucker
TomTucker

The mandatory cuts are so small, they won't be felt, but Odumbo and the marxist brigade will certainly make you think so, even thought he whole thing was their idea to begin with, back in 2011.  Lying scum is what they are.

gysgt213
gysgt213

See Mark Halperin is star struck again.  He saw some republicans in real life. Up close. And personal.

sacredh
sacredh

C. Everet Coop has passed away.

fitty_three
fitty_three

This concludes today's episode of "As Teh GOP Turns" with bomber playing the asylum inmate.  Tune in tomorrow for yet another episode.

ChrisCoker
ChrisCoker

@BenFranklin I say give you conservatives what you want. End SSI, stop all payments immediately. Same with Medicaid. Kill welfare and all social programs. Stop making Liberals in cities pay for roads and services to rural communities. They can build their own roads and power lines. They can also pay more for power as they live further away. End public school. Burn tires for heat and dump all our garbage in the ocean. Then send everyone in the US a free Ak47 and 10000 rounds of ammo. That should fix the problem. I say let's stop arguing and get on with it. You win.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@TomTucker Odumbo? Marxist Brigade? How much does the Democratic party pay you to act as a bad stereotype if a right winger?

StevenNewman
StevenNewman

@TomTucker Well, no it was not their idea.  The Dems proposed tax increases, but the GOP would never, NEVER vote for that, so the GOP suggested the military cuts.  Meanwhile, while we are still digging out from the GOP financial disaster of 2008, we are about to lose another 750,00 to 2,000,000 jobs.  Way to go GOP!

fitty_three
fitty_three

@sacredh  

Can't trust them Ferangi.  I've always listend to what Picard says.

Kingdo_Goodbomber
Kingdo_Goodbomber

@53_3 except I'm not a Republican or a member of the GOP.  So much for your pigeonholing, but I understand your childlike perception of the world, i.e. disagrees with me = evil tea party republican neocon

BenFranklin
BenFranklin

@StevenNewman @TomTucker The Pubbies did not cause the mortgage meltdown.  That was CLinton and the CRA.  Even CLinton himself admits as much.  Why can't you?

reallife
reallife

@StevenNewman @TomTucker   LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE way to go democrat! what? are you trying to get a job in the white house "press club"? MSNBC?


sacredh
sacredh

fitty, as you can imagine, the closer the sequester gets, the more nervous the guys at work get. I've been staying out of the conversations as much as possible. Even some of the conservatives at work are complaining about the republicans. they tried to get me involved in the conversation before i left this morning so I just went outside for a cigarette.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@sacredh  

It takes your own pocketbook to get hit before a "staunch Republican" needs to stanch the bleeding.

My brother in law, who is in the courts, he manages UI's  for the state, will be furloughed.  Sucks, and a lot of people with pitchforks are going to be chasing teabaggers here too.

joebcool
joebcool

you are a total idiot (Kingdo). you obviously know nothing about the military. if the military could do want they are trained to do no one would stand a chance against the US military. There is always some jokester, like obama  in the way, to stop our trained soldiers from diong what they know best. For one thing, they could shoot you, and we would have one less mouth to feed. That would be a good start. Those who think only of themselves suck...(Queendo_Badtarget).

Kingdo_Goodbomber
Kingdo_Goodbomber

@mantisdragon91 I actually think much worse of them, I'm trying to be civil.  the US military is a piece of shit that can't even win wars against guys in mud huts with sandels and 60 year old AKs and no defense budget.  100% cuts to a fighting force that shitty sound appropriate to me.  Maybe replace the US Military with something that can do more than create global animosity and lose wars while polluting the planet

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

So that's what you think of the guys risking their lives to allow you to be an idiot in online forums. Charming.

Kingdo_Goodbomber
Kingdo_Goodbomber

@mantisdragon91 @Kingdo_Goodbomber @53_3 If Swamland is representative of it then I would rather not be.

Again, stick with following orders, child murdering, woman raping and other things that can be accomplished with half a drug-addled PTSD riddled brain.  Quick wit isn't your forte.

sacredh
sacredh

"Does it drive you crazy that I don't wave the banner of some -ism?"

kingdo, many of us on here aren't really all that impressed with Obama even though we voted for him. For many of us, he isn't liberal enough. I'm more socialist than democrat but I support the democratsbecause they're closer to my political beliefs. Voting for Obama is just a matter of pragmatism for me.

grape_crush
grape_crush

> Does it drive you crazy that I don't wave the banner of some -ism?

The problem is that you think everyone else around here is.


fitty_three
fitty_three

@Kingdo_Goodbomber

Not really.  I think that diagnoses would probably be easier if you would see your local mental health facility.

Kingdo_Goodbomber
Kingdo_Goodbomber

@53_3 @Kingdo_Goodbomber Does it drive you crazy that I don't wave the banner of some -ism?  Will it make you feel better if I do so that you can pigeonhole me appropriately so can continue obfuscating on behalf of Obama's DNC?