Can a possible government shutdown save us from the sequester?

February 27, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner may not come to an agreement with President Obama to replace the sequester, but he may yet by March 27.  (J Scott Applewhite / AP)

Washington is facing a major budget crisis next month. No, not the sequester taking effect March 1. The potential government shutdown happening on March 27.

On that day, the "continuing resolution" funding the federal government expires. Continuing resolutions, or CRs, are how the federal government funds itself in the absence of a formal budget. They've become the de facto budget for most of Obama's presidency because Congress and the White House haven't been able to agree on an actual budget for years. If the current CR isn't extended before March 27, or replaced with another one, the government will shut down.

So Congress has to pass a new spending bill within a month. But within that crisis lies an opportunity, or a crisitunity if you prefer.

The threat of a shutdown actually forces Congress to act. That means that even if, as appears likely, the sequester is allowed to go into effect, Congress will have to pass a spending bill that either keeps the sequester or does away with it in favor of alternate cuts and revenue increases. The same pressures that have prevented a deal this time around will be present, especially with the White House wanting to increase spending in the CR. But because a shutdown is a much more visible and politically potent crisis than the slow-moving damage of the sequester's cuts, the pressure for a deal will increase considerably.

Congress at that point also will have the benefit of a month living under the sequester -- and hearing from defense contractors and constituents and agency heads and children kicked off Head Start and all the rest of it -- which could inform their choice as to whether it should continue or not.

There is precedent for repealing a sequester, as budget expert Stan Collender has noted. A continuing resolution in 1991 repealed that year's sequester thusly:

SEC 113. (a) Any order on sequestration for fiscal year 1991 issued before, on, or after the date of enactment of this joint resolution pursuant to section 252 of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 is suspended and no action shall be taken to implement any such order.

Easy, right? A section more or less identical to that one, snuck into a continuing resolution (or any other bill, really) would be all we need to stop the sequester. Of course, it's doubtful Congress will agree to pass such a provision barring something to replace the cuts with, but there's an important point here. The sequester isn't some unstoppable external force waiting to menace the federal budget. It's a provision passed by Congress, and one that can be repealed by Congress, too.

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Brad Plumer | February 27, 2013