Sequester is a funny word.
It’s typically not a word you’d use in daily conversation, unless you’re maybe a bankruptcy lawyer, or a monk.
In general usage, sequester means to seclude or hide away – which, come to think of it, is starting to sound like a pretty good idea.
As a legal term, sequester describes the process of taking valuable property into custody by the court for safekeeping, typically during ownership disputes in order to prevent the property from being destroyed or disposed of improperly.
In the context of the US Congress, sequester is defined as an act of lewd acrobats involving a senator, a underage prostitute, a tube of KY-Jelly, and a squid.
OK, you got me, I might have just made up that last bit.
But, see, likely my flippant definition of the pending crisis is probably just as good as any other.
For the most part, research indicates that Americans have a vague idea that Sequestration is bad, and that we probably ought to blame somebody for it, and that it probably involves the federal government (and maybe a squid), but they really have no idea of the details.
A poll published by The Hill on Feb. 11 found that only thirty-six percent of voters could define the Sequester even in the most general terms. Thirty-eight percent thought they knew, but were wrong when questioned in detail. Twenty percent thought the Sequester had something to do with the debt limit – which is incorrect. Eight percent thought Sequester referred to some kind of ruling by SCOTUS on the budget – it doesn’t and there is no such case.
And, you know, you can hardly blame Americans for their ignorance, since the 2010 elections it’s been one artificially spawned “crisis” after another – from the Fiscal Cliff to the Mayan Apocalypse. It’s getting hard to keep them straight. Sequester is just the most recent weird word in a long line of weird words, describing an arcane concept most people have little understanding of and less experience with. And to make it even more confusing, congressional leaders who were just last week describing to us just how awful Sequestration is, are now suddenly telling us, wait, hang on, Obama says it’s bad, so it must be good.
We’ve always been at war with Eastasia, right? Or was it Eurasia? I forget.
For most Americans, the Sequester set to take effect on Friday is just the latest vaguely defined dire threat in an endless parade of squawking Chicken Littles. And, hell, Congress already has the next crisis, the reoccurring debt ceiling showdown, scheduled for the end of March – hard to get excited about this one when we’ve got to get the partisan troops ready for the next battle, right?
Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that Sequestration will negatively affect every American (and a lot of non-Americans too) and the vast majority of them know next to nothing about it – in fact, most of us don’t even know where the word Sequester came from or what it means.
The term itself, Sequester, used in the context of the US federal budget originated in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985. The idea behind the act was to make the size of the federal deficit a conscious choice by congress and the president, rather than an accidental result of the appropriations process. How it works is like this: each year in the annual Budget Resolution, congress must set a limit on the coming year’s deficit and then build the budget around that limit, instead of cranking out the budget first and letting the deficit fall where it may as a result.
In other words, each year it’s up to congress and the president to determine how large the deficit will be for that year (and by extension, how much larger the national debt will be allowed to grow).
Now most Americans think of the federal budget as some kind of single massive spreadsheet, but in reality it’s a dozen or so appropriation bills that are passed (or not) separately by congress each year. In accordance with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, if the total amount of government spending in those various appropriation bills exceeds the limits established by congress in the Budget Resolution, and if congress cannot agree on ways to reduce the total amount of expenditures to meet the limit or is unable to pass a new budget resolution with a higher spending limit (that next crisis I mentioned, the one on March 27) then an automatic form of spending cuts is invoked by law.
The automatic cuts are called sequestration.
So, that’s where the term itself, used in the context of the federal budget, comes from.
Now, under sequestration, an amount of money equal to the difference between the cap set in the Budget Resolution and the total amount actually appropriated is taken back from the government and held in reserve by the Treasury, i.e. this money is not handed over to the agencies to which it was originally allocated by Congress in the various appropriation bills.
It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist, or a scheming politician, to see all kinds of different ways that sequestration can be abused – and it would be abused, just like the Filibuster is abused by self-serving partisan politicians in the Senate, if there wasn’t some mechanism to prevent it.
So, to prevent sequestration from becoming a way for politicians to carry out personal vendettas against various political targets (both by the left and the right), the money is supposed to be withheld from every government agency equally. That is, every government agency, program, and project gets the same percentage of its projected budget withheld to produce an “across the board” total spending cut in order to make the federal budget for that year meet the limits set by congress in the Budget Resolution.
In other words, if you force the government into sequestration in order to stick it to the other guys, you automatically screw yourself too.
In a very nearly literal sense, sequestration is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Of course, congress immediately exempted certain programs from Sequestration, such as Social Security and selected portions of the Defense budget, and each year since the passage of Gram-Rudman-Hollings congress has added more programs to the exempt list.
However, the total amount of Sequestration remains the delta between the total appropriations passed by congress and the limit that they set for themselves.
What this means in practical terms is that Sequestration has to take back huge chunks of the remaining non-exempt agency and program budgets to meet the total cutbacks required by law. The impact on those agencies is huge.
This sequestration is by definition a failure of congress.
It is, in point of fact, the result of multiple failures, beginning with the debt-ceiling fight in 2011. Tea Party conservatives, fresh off their electoral victories in the 2010 midterms, demanded one dollar in spending reductions for every dollar of increase in the federal debt ceiling. The resulting congressional brawl nearly crashed the stock market and undermined consumer confidence in the US economy – and as a result S&P downgraded the country’s credit rating for the first time in history.
Eventually congress agreed to raise the US borrowing limit, the so-called debt ceiling.
That agreement resulted in the Budget Control Act which allowed for a $2.4 trillion debt-ceiling increase in return for about the same amount of deficit reduction over the next decade. Of that two trillion dollar deficit reduction, about half was to be achieved through spending caps on all government functions outside of entitlement programs – that much they managed to agree on. The rest of the reduction however, was the sticking point. Congress couldn’t agree where the other trillion and a half dollars was to come from.
So they punted.
They created a bipartisan (or perhaps “hyperpartisan” would be a better word) commission commonly referred to as the supercommitte to hash it out.
The supercommittee was born of failure, but it could have succeeded. The committee had immense power and special rules that would allow its recommendations to move through congress without the usual delaying tactics. It could have succeeded. But it was deliberately loaded with folks who refused to comprise and who were determined to fail, and fail they did, right on schedule.
And that triggered the Budget Control Act’s self-destruct clause, Sequestration.
But Republicans weren’t worried.
See, they were sure, absolutely sure, that they’d win back the White House, then they wouldn’t have to deal with Barack Obama. So they crossed their arms and petulantly refused to do their job – and why should they? They get paid the same whether they work or not.
And now here it is, 2013, and they still can’t believe that Obama won reelection. It pisses them off. As a result, they’ve decided to make the entire country pay for their humiliation.
And so here we are.
Sequestration was supposed to begin on the first day of this year, but congress managed kick the can down the road two months by finding $24 billion in reductions, which allowed them two additional months to do the job they should have done a year ago.
Instead, they failed once again.
This year the sequestration totals a hundred billion and change. Since congress has already found twenty-four billion, they still have to cut roughly eighty-six billion out of the rest of the year. One hundred billion is about two percent of the federal budget.
Two percent doesn’t seem like a lot, does it?
It's amazing how Obama says that life as we know it will end, when the cuts are only 2% of the whole budget. His scare tactics are just about an impeachable offense, because HE is the one who will decide which cuts are to be made. And if he makes the cuts to make the GOP look bad, instead of making cuts which would be good for the country, he WILL be impeached. Even Democrat senators have been saying that
I don’t think the Yahoo! commenter understands what constitutes “an impeachable” offense – and if he wants to impeach somebody, he should start with congress because they’re the ones who put us in this position. His grasp of the Sequester isn’t any better.
However, the sentiment expressed in his comment seems to be a common perception of the situation.
Two percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but because certain programs are exempt from sequestration, the remaining non-exempt programs will have to provide the entire amount. And those affected programs will likely be severely impacted, if not outright crippled, by the resulting cutbacks because while Sequestration will only take back 2% of the overall federal budget, agencies such as the non-exempt portion of the Defense Department will end up losing more like thirteen percent of their budgets this year. Non-Defense agencies are looking at close to a nine percent cut.
Those are huge numbers, with huge impacts.
Now, in reality of course, most likely there’s no actual money to withhold – because at the moment the government would have to borrow most of it first. That’s why a number of folks are saying sequestration isn’t really taking anything away from anybody – because they never really had it in the first place so they should be able to live without it. That’s a massively oversimplified misconception that while in some cases may be superficially true, in many cases it bears no relationship to reality. See, those agencies were promised that money, via appropriation bills, and they built their budgets around it more than a year ago, i.e. the Navy ordered ships and scheduled deployments and dry dock repairs, and the Air Force ordered planes and let contracts for repairs on their buildings, and various agencies, programs, and projects hired people and ordered office supplies and bound themselves to contracts and other financial obligations. State programs such as schools, fire departments, police forces, food and shelter programs, transportation departments, and so on were all promised federal money and they planned accordingly. And this includes all those Congressional pork barrel projects that everybody hates in other states, but somehow can’t live without in their own. And not all states are affected equally, the poorest states – and ironically the reddest and therefore the ones most opposed to federal spending – are the ones most dependent on the Federal government for police, fire, school, and social services funding.
Now the rules of Sequestration allow for very little latitude when it comes to withholding funds – by law, the cuts are supposed to affect every non-exempt department, agency, program, and project. It was designed that way.
Sequestration is supposed to be painful.
It’s supposed to be a used only as a last ditch, emergency option when all else has failed.
There is no reason for this. Obama could cut a lot of other things. He is lying again, and purposely cutting really necessary things pretending there is nothing else to cut, in a desperate attempt to keep us form cutting everything we need to. Obama is evil. He is now cutting things we DO need. Impeach and JAIL this MF. Obama is out of his mind. Now he wants to cut necessary things instead of all the things that can easily be cut. He's doing this to scare people into thinking things can't be cut. Obama is so EVIL. We need to cut tons, and letting illegal detainees go like Obama wants to do is NOT one of them. Obama is a criminal! Impeach and jail him!
Why is he [Obama]shutting down airports?!! Usual lib scar tactics is what it is! Give me more of money or I’ll shut down your airport! Want to be all the airports he shuts are in RED states???? What a crock!
Those comments were under a Yahoo! article on the Sequester, the same one I linked to above. They’re two of thousands of similar comments I’ve read or heard elsewhere, including from supposedly informed commentators and news personalities. What these people, and indeed a significant fraction of Americans in general, don’t seem to understand is that when sequestration goes into effect, neither the president nor congress gets to pick and choose what gets cut and what doesn’t.
With a handful of exemptions, sequestration cuts all departments, agencies, programs, and projects across the board.
That’s whole point of Sequestration.
Now, some of those programs and projects can’t be cut back, they either have to be funded in whole or they’ll have to be shut down altogether.
Let me give you an example.
In the second comment above, the writer was outraged about cuts to air traffic controllers. I saw a thousand comments just like this one on various Tea Party sites and under various new articles. What these people fail to realize is that a) many small regional airports are already running with the absolute minimum number of personal required by law to operate, and b) the sequester applies to all agencies equally by law – including Air Traffic Controllers. The Department of Transportation doesn’t get a choice, by congressional design, the president is not allowed to favor one area over another. Therefore all airports will have their federal employees furloughed by the same percentage – and air traffic controllers are federal employees. In a number of cases this drops the total number of controllers below the thresholds where it’s safe to operate, so the airports either have to shut down or operate part time. And it’s not just the controllers, it’s the security folks, and the safety inspectors, and so on, and in many cases it’s just not possible to go into part time operation, you can’t start the facility up and shut it down over and over. Hell, from the standpoint of airline scheduling alone, it’s just not practical because the systems are simply too complex with too many moving parts and there isn’t enough leeway. For example, what if weather forces a delay at a small regional airport, pushing scheduled flights past the point where the tower can be manned and into the time where the airport has to shut down? The passengers, and the expensive plane, would be stranded until the airport can open up again. Yeah, but can’t the tower guys just work overtime or something? No. Not only no, but hell no. In fact they could be arrested for working when they’re supposed to be on furlough. No airline can take the risk of operating under these conditions, and neither can an airport for liability reasons. So they’ll have to shut down.
Another example: USDA food inspectors. If Sequestration goes into effect, 8,400 meat inspectors will have to be furloughed for a total of fifteen days to meet the reduced budget constrains for their agency. Meat processing plants can’t operate without inspectors for what should be very obvious reasons. There is a minimum number of inspectors required for each shift at each plant. In a lot of cases, it is impossible to run the plant at reduced capacity, for the most part they simply aren’t designed that way – it’s like running an entire GM assembly line to make one car. So the plants will have to be idled on the days where there aren’t enough inspectors to fill all the shifts. So not only do the federal inspectors lose work, so do the meat packers, and the food plant – which means they all pay less taxes, which means the government has even less money to pay its bills The president doesn’t get the option of keeping the inspectors on at the expense of some other area of the USDA, he can’t take money from salmon research or vaccination programs to pay meat inspectors, because Congress has specifically denied him that flexibility. And again, it was designed that way to prevent either congress or the president from using sequestration to kill or fund partisan programs.
Likewise, you can’t build a navy ship at reduced capacity – the process is already just about as lean as it can get. There are literally millions, millions, of subassemblies and supplies and projects that all have to meet to build a ship on schedule and within budget. A delay anywhere in that process will snarl hundreds of timelines. You’re going to have to idle the entire shipyard and reprogram. There’s just no way around it. If you think there is, you simply have no grasp of the enormous scope and complexity of what it takes to build a modern warship.
There is very little flexibility in sequestration because the process isn’t supposed to be used.
Sequestration is supposed to be the nuclear option, the option with such catastrophic consequences that anything else is preferable – including sitting down at the table with your political opposition and doing your goddamned job.
Using Sequestration to cut government spending is exactly like slamming into a wall and depending on your car’s airbag so that you don’t have to fix the brakes.
It’s stupid and dangerous and as I’ve said, exactly like cutting off your own nose.
Speaker of the House, John Boehner, denounced President Obama, saying, “He’s is going all over the country holding rallies instead of sitting down with Senate leaders. We have moved a bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, but still, that’s pretty funny, coming from congress. You know, the folks who gave themselves the last ten days off.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Obama “needs stop campaigning" and stop trying to "scare" people over the looming sequester cuts. "It's time for the president to show leadership. Every governor here has had to balance their budget during tough economic times, every family has to balance their budget. The reality is it can be done. It can be done without jeopardizing the economy, it can be done without jeopardizing critical services."
And that’s even funnier, given that no state – most especially Louisiana – has ever balanced its budget without federal dollars, especially one still shoveling its way out from under one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever hit an American city. Who exactly pays the lion’s share of Jindal’s critical services? I’ll give you one guess. Is Jindal saying that he’s prepared to have the state of Louisiana step up and pay the difference when Sequestration takes back funding for his police, firemen, schools, and hurricane repairs? I’m hip. Sounds good, let’s take him up on it.
And it’s not just Louisiana, according the White House's figures, Pennsylvania will lose $26.4 million in funding for education, while New Jersey will lose $11.7 million and Delaware will lose $1.4 million. In addition, the estimated numbers of civilian jobs that could see furloughs are 26,000 for Pennsylvania, 11,000 for New Jersey, and 2,000 for Delaware. Funding will be cut for some social programs related to daycare, Head Start, meals for seniors, vaccinations for children, and educators who work with the disabled. What state has the excess funding to make up those shortfalls? Especially this far into the fiscal year? I notice that Governor Jindal and his fellow state executives haven’t mentioned any of that to their citizens.
"This is not time for a road-show president," House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said.
Wrong, this is exactly the time. The governors aren’t doing it, so somebody has to.
The President isn’t engaged in scare tactics, he’s doing his job telling you, the American citizen, what the consequences of Sequester are going to be. And you should be informed, you should be scared, you should know full well how it’s going to affect everything from your job to your fire department to the food you put in your mouth. Because it is going to affect you, it’s going to affect everybody. And you need to know that. You, the voting citizen need to know that, you need to know because we live in a republic and while Congress refuses to listen to the President, they might just listen to you.
Because that’s how America is supposed to work.
You can’t afford to remain ignorant of the details of Sequestration.
The consequences of Sequestration are dire in the extreme, it was designed to be that way, and in point of fact if the consequences aren’t extreme then congress is in violation of the law.
By definition, sequestration means that the United States congress has failed in its primary duty – which is why a significant fraction of congress is trying to pretend like this whole thing wasn’t their idea in the first place and that the effects will be limited.
Then why did you sign [Sequestration] into law Mr. President? Because you made a political miscalculation thinking that the GOP would never allow such defense cuts and that their concession on this bill would allow you to again raise taxes? Whoops.
The commenter is correct. Obama did underestimate conservatives – he didn’t think they’d be suicidal or insane enough to actually risk crashing the economy of the United States, maybe even the whole world, to make a political point.
Obama underestimated just how much conservatives hate him and how far they are willing to go because of it.
Of course, just like the last crisis, and the one before that, just like the recent fight over Chuck Hagel’s nomination, it’s all a game.
Conservatives will, in the end, make a deal. Very likely they’ll end up giving President Obama what he wants, at least to some extent. But not before they’ve made their point, not before they’ve caused gas prices to go up and stock prices to fall, not before they’ve risked yet another downgrade to America’s credit rating. Not before they’ve idled 700,000 American workers who can least afford it and not before they’ve driven the wedge that divides this country just a little deeper into its heart. But eventually, they’ll deal, they have no choice because they’ve already lost and they know it. And that’s what galls them the most.
Every American, left and right, should be appalled that it’s finally come down to this.
Every American, left and right, should be appalled by this continuous and unending state of self inflicted crisis.
And it is long past time to stop playing games.
It is long past time for congress to stop causing the problems and start fixing them.