The sequester, explained

September 14, 2012

The White House has released its plan explaining how the sequester's mandatory spending cuts to defense and domestic spending will be implemented in 2013. Here's the background on what the sequester is, how it happened and what happens from here:


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

What is the sequester?

It's a package of automatic spending cuts that's part of the Budget Control Act (BCA), which was passed in August 2011. The cuts, which are projected to total $1.2 trillion, are scheduled to begin in 2013 and end in 2021, evenly divided over the nine-year period. The cuts are also evenly split between defense spending — with spending on wars exempt — and discretionary domestic spending, which exempts most spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicaid, as the Bipartisan Policy Center explains. The total cuts for 2013 will be $109 billion, according to the new White House report.

Under the BCA, the cuts were triggered to take effect beginning Jan. 1 if the supercommittee didn't to agree to a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package by Nov. 23, 2011. The group failed to reach a deal, so the sequester was triggered.

Why does everyone hate the sequester so much?

Legislators don't have any discretion with the across-the-board cuts: They are intended to hit all affected programs equally, though the cuts to individual areas will range from 7.6 percent to 9.6 percent (and 2 percent to Medicare providers). The indiscriminate pain is meant to pressure legislators into making a budget deal to avoid the cuts.

How would these cuts affect the country?

Since the details just came out, it's not entirely clear yet. But many top defense officials have warned that the cuts will lead the military to be "hollowed out." Democratic legislators have similarly warned about the impact on vital social programs. And defense, health care and other industries that are significantly dependent on federal spending say that major job losses will happen if the cuts end up taking effect.

At the same time, if legislators try to avoid the sequester without replacing it with real deficit reduction, the U.S. could face another credit downgrade.

Why did Congress and the White House agree to the sequester in the first place?

The government was approaching its debt limit, which needed to be raised through a congressional vote or else the country would default in early August 2011. While Democrats were in favor of a "clean" vote without strings attached, Republicans were demanding substantial cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.

President Obama and congressional leaders ultimately agreed to the BCA, which would allow the debt ceiling to be raised by $2.1 trillion in exchange for the establishment of the supercommittee tied to the fall-back sequester, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains. The deal also includes mandatory spending reductions on top of the sequester by putting caps on non-entitlement discretionary spending that will reduce funding by $1 trillion by 2021.

Who supported the debt-ceiling deal?

Party leaders, the White House and most members of Congress supported the debt-ceiling deal: The BCA passed on a 268-161 vote in the House, with about one-third of House Republicans and half of House Democrats opposing it. It passed in the Senate, 74-26, with six Democratic senators and 19 Republican senators opposing it.

Can the sequester be avoided?

Yes, but only if Congress passes another budget deal that would achieve at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Both Democrats and Republicans have offered proposals to do so, but there still isn't much progress on a deal. The political obstacles are the same as during the supercommittee negotiations: Republicans don't want to raise taxes to generate revenue, while Democrats are reluctant to make dramatic changes to entitlement programs to achieve savings.

What happens from here?

No one on Capitol Hill thinks any deal will happen before Election Day. After Nov. 6, Congress will have just a few weeks to come up with an alternative to the sequester. The challenge is complicated by the fact that the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax, unemployment benefits and a host of other tax breaks are all scheduled to expire Dec. 31. The cumulative impact of all of these scheduled cuts and changes is what's popularly known as the fiscal cliff. There's already talk of passing a short-term stopgap budget plan during the lame-duck session to buy legislators more time to come up with a grand bargain.

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