The problem with sequestration is not so much the size of the cuts but their scope.
With the exception of a few programs specifically spared by Congress — including Medicaid, Medicare benefits and food stamps — every government account would be sliced by the almost same amount.
The White House has said that all domestic programs that were not specifically shielded would face an 8.2 percent cut next year. Military programs would be cut by 9.4 percent.
Air traffic controllers, courthouse security guards, National Institutes of Health cancer researchers — all would face the same crunch.
“You do need cuts. But sequestration is not the way to go,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). “It’s literally a meat ax without any thought behind it.”
Federal workers are still expected to report to their jobs on Wednesday as normal. But agencies would quickly institute hiring freezes, restrict travel and reduce technology spending. And, without congressional action to reverse the cut, widespread furloughs would be possible as agencies grapple with squeezing the amount they have to spend through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
On Friday, the administration formally outlined for employees the nuts and bolts of how the temporary layoffs would work.
Particularly problematic, economically and politically, are scheduled cuts at the Pentagon, which Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said could have a devastating impact on the military.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Saturday blasted the notion of reaching a deal that would not cancel the pending military cuts.
“It would be irresponsible for the Commander in Chief to allow the new year to begin without some kind of sequester resolution in place,” McKeon said in a statement. “To do anything else would hobble our military with uncertainty and embolden our adversaries who would be encouraged by our inability to govern beyond this crisis.”
Sword over their heads
Sequestration was always intended to be an incentive to force Congress and the White House to find a better alternative.
It was enacted in the summer of 2011 during the debt-ceiling fight, when lawmakers agreed to increase the nation’s legal borrowing limit but also to cut spending by $1 trillion and to create a 12-member bipartisan “super committee” to craft a plan to reduce the debt by $1.2 trillion more.
To provide incentive for the panel, Congress hung the sword of sequestration over its head: If it did not come up with a plan by the end of 2011, government budgets would simply be reduced automatically by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Half the cuts would come from the military, intended to spur Republicans to act; the deep domestic cut was supposed to do the same for Democrats.
Even after the super committee disbanded without agreement late last year, Congress still had a full year to forestall the first $110 billion annual installment of cuts. It failed.
In May, the House passed a bill along party lines to deal with the sequester, but it would have merely shifted some of the military cuts onto domestic programs, an outcome Democrats said was unacceptable.
If leaders let sequestration take effect next week but promise to deal with it in a few months, when Congress debates a new debt-ceiling increase, Connolly said Americans would have the right to be skeptical.
“Never think something is unthinkable,” he said. “That’s been the lesson here.”