With all feel-good talk about immigration reform, fans of conflict and dysfunction may fear the arrival of genuine bipartisanship in Washington.
Not to worry! Another budget crisis is almost upon us! This time it’s not the dread fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling, but rather the “sequester”—the extremely crude cutting mechanism that essentially nobody favors but that seems likely to happen anyway. It’ll drag down the economy, impair the functioning of the government across the board, and do nothing to improve America’s fiscal sustainability over the long run.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is it? Sequestration is broad, automatic, across-the-board cuts to most categories of government spending. These are scheduled to take effect on March 1. Social Security, Medicaid, targeted anti-poverty programs, military pay, and the operational cost of ongoing wars are exempted. Benefits for Medicare patients won’t be touched, but payment rates to providers will. Everything else is getting the ax. And it’s not a small ax. The military's 2013 budget will be cut by just over 7.3 percent, and domestic discretionary programs will be cut by over 5 percent.*
How did this happen? It all goes back to the bipartisan disaster of the 2011 debt-ceiling talks. Historically, the occasional need for the executive branch to request congressional permission to borrow money had been an opportunity for grandstanding. But flush with victory, House Republicans decided to attempt to extract substantive policy concessions in the form of spending cuts. Rather than stare them down as Obama did successfully earlier this year or avert the crisis by exploiting the platinum coin loophole, Obama chose to negotiate, seeking a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit. What emerged was the sequester.
So the sequester is a bipartisan deal that everyone supports? Quite the opposite! The debt ceiling was a hard deadline, but neither side wanted to give up on the grand bargain. So they raised the debt ceiling limit and appointed a “supercommittee” to continue the bargaining. The sequester was meant to be a stick—something everyone agreed was a terrible idea—that provided members of the supercommittee with an incentive to agree to an alternative means of deficit reduction. The cuts were evenly divided between defense and non-defense segments to give Democrats and Republicans equal pressure to seek an alternative.