What is the sequester?

Claire Goldsmith

Do you know what the sequester is? If not, you’re not alone – about half of the country hasn’t been following the news about the sequester and doesn’t clearly understand what it is, according to a recent Pew poll.
When I first heard the term, I paid it no attention. Sequestration, as far as I knew, was what they do to a jury during important murder trials so they can’t be influenced by the press. In this context, however, the sequester is almost universally acknowledged as a really bad thing.
You may remember the “fiscal cliff” – a series of tax cuts that expired at the same time as automatic spending cuts came into effect on Dec. 31, 2012, at 12:00 a.m. (Happy New Year, America!). To avert this crisis, which economists projected would slow national spending by 1.7 percent for 2013, Congress passed a bill, which the President then signed, to fund the government for two more months, basically putting off the nitty-gritty parts of the deal-making until March 1.
So these stopgap procrastination measures set up a challenge: Congress had to cut billions of dollars in discretionary and non-discretionary spending by March 1. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. The President and House Republicans both proposed several plans for these cuts and, although Obama changed his plans to incorporate their key points, some of the more conservative Republicans were unwilling to negotiate with the White House despite such attempts at compromise.
As of March 1, these automatic spending cuts began, to the tune of $85.4 billion for 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The slashes will have the greatest impact on defense spending, with a nearly eight percent cut. Discretionary spending (money allocated toward any non-entitlement programs such as schools and public health) will face a 5.3 percent cut; non-discretionary spending, including Medicare and mandatory defense programs and non-defense programs, will see about $14 billion in cuts.
These may just sound like arbitrary numbers, but the real-life impact of the sequester is huge. Part of the law that put the sequester into effect stipulates that it has to affect “every program, project and activity” the same amount. The sequester won’t just hurt the bureaucracy – funding to nearly every government program will be cut.
The Washington Post put together a great graphic explaining the state-by-state effects of the sequester, according to information provided by the White House. Here are some of the cuts we’ll see in California alone:
·  $1.1 million less of funding for vaccinations, meaning nearly 16,000 kids won’t be protected against measles, whooping cough and tetanus
·  $3.3 million less for those seeking employment, which translates to 129,770 fewer people getting help in finding a job
·  $54 million less in funding for Army bases and $15 million less for the Air Force
·  The Head Start program that provides preschool care and early education will be eliminated for 8,200 kids due to lack of funding
This combination of military and domestic program cuts is particularly devastating in states that are centers of the defense industry. In Virginia, for example, 90,000 civilians will be furloughed, meaning they will be forced to take unpaid days off from work, thus reducing their salaries.
Traveling over spring break? 10 percent of the TSA could be furloughed every day due to the sequester, leading to severe delays at airports. Many departments are cutting back internship and youth outreach programs because they lack funding, so you might need to reevaluate your summer plans.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester will slow the growth of the gross domestic product by about 0.6 percent. When you add in the expiration of payroll taxes and other fiscal measures, that CBO estimate reaches 1.5 percent.
Obviously the government needs to cut spending, but blindly applying blanket cuts to every program is not the way to do it. Museums and national parks, not to mention the health and education of the American people, shouldn’t suffer because Washington couldn’t work out a deal.
Your mom tells you that your actions have consequences and your teachers warn you not to let your work snowball.
The sequester is the ultimate example of procrastination gone wrong.