You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means in the Pentagon budget fight. (The Washington Post)

Decisions have consequences, and in the current debate over how to avert the “fiscal cliff,” the consequence of failing to reach an agreement is “sequestration.”

The dictionary definition of sequestration is “to isolate or hide away (someone or something).” In Washington parlance, sequestration refers to the dramatic cuts in federal spending that are set to kick in automatically at the beginning of January. These reductions would total $1.2 trillion over the next decade, starting with about $50 billion in Pentagon spending and another $50 billion in non-defense spending.

The spending cuts are the consequence of the bipartisan deal struck last year to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and were meant to goad Washington into action. In passing the Budget Control Act, President Obama and lawmakers established a 12-member “supercommittee” to draft a bipartisan agreement with $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade. If the panel failed to draft an agreement, both sides agreed that draconian spending cuts would begin after New Year’s Day.

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue agreed to the sequestration plan on the assumption that neither side would want to endure the painful political and economic consequences of slashing federal spending so deeply and indiscriminately. But the talks have failed to reach an agreement — and the Congressional Budget Office is warning that the cuts would help push the nation back into a recession.

Unless Congress acts before Jan. 1, there will be an immediate 9.4 percent across-the-board cut in money for defense programs and an 8.2 percent reduction in money for domestic initiatives, according to a report released in September by the White House.

The Defense Department would need to delay equipment purchases and repairs, trim services for military families and perhaps compromise the readiness of military units preparing to deploy, according to the White House report.

Elsewhere, the cuts could mean fewer FBI agents, federal prosecutors and air traffic controllers, significant cutbacks in federal scientific research, fewer food inspections and a possible limit to services at national parks and historic sites.

But the plan would exempt certain programs and priorities, including food stamps, Medicaid and benefits and salaries for military personnel.

The only way to avoid sequestration is for Congress to pass an alternative spending plan. It has less than a month to do it.