Is sequestration here to stay?

March 21, 2013

Sequestration was meant to be such a terrible, indiscriminate instrument that it would force both parties to overcome their differences and pass a major budget deal. Now it's looking possible that the across-the-board cuts could just be here to stay.

What's Congress going to do about the meat-ax cuts we're facing? Who knows! (Flickr / Martin Cathrae)
(Flickr -- Martin Cathrae)

The Continuing Resolution that passed the House Thursday and the Senate Wednesday contained changes intended to blunt a wide array of  the cuts under sequestration, making it relatively less painful.

While it didn't reverse sequestration — which cuts defense discretionary spending by 8 percent and non-defense by 5-6 percent — it did raise the baseline funding for programs ranging from Head Start to cancer research. That gives these programs more of a cushion when the automatic spending reductions do take effect over the course of the year. (Two programs — for meat inspection and tuition for military service members — were exempted from sequestration altogether.)

This bill doesn't undo the overall level of spending cuts, which total $85 billion this year — it just moves the money from one part of the government to another to better protect prioritized programs from the sequester's meat ax. Altogether, the CR sets new appropriations levels for two-thirds of all discretionary spending — a process that Democrats wanted to separate out from the bigger impasse over taxes and entitlements.

Even though these may just be marginal improvements, the changes under CR could be enough to dull some of the political urgency of undoing sequestration. Most fiscal conservatives seem fine with the tweaks to the appropriations levels, as the overall spending cuts are in place. And the CR tweaks gave many legislators something to write home about, generating news releases like, "MIKULSKI FIGHTS TO PROTECT JOBS AT U.S. COAST GUARD YARD AT CURTIS BAY IN SENATE PASSED CONTINUING RESOLUTION."

"The expectation is that sequestration is here to stay," says Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action. "The changes gave some folks political cover." He adds that some of the White House's missteps in the lead-up to the sequestration — including a misleading statement by Education Secretary Arne Duncan about teachers getting "pink slips" — could give others pause before describing the horrors of sequestration.

However, it's worth noting that the real economic damage of sequestration is cumulative, as it's only been three weeks since the automatic cuts started to take effect. "It's too early to say whether it's here to stay — the layoffs and furloughs haven't really happened yet," says Stan Collender, a former Congressional budget aide. If the impact of the cuts begins to fuel a major public backlash, legislators could be pressed to find a substitute. But if the summer rolls around and there still hasn't been such a push back, Collender expects that the cuts "will stay in place for the rest of the year."

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Brad Plumer · March 21, 2013