WASHINGTON — While Washington sidestepped parts of the fiscal cliff in the January tax compromise, the automatic budget cuts budget cuts were only bumped back two months, to March 1.
The automatic cuts, known as "sequestration," were locked in during the summer of 2011, when the White House needed to raise the debt ceiling and House Republicans refused to do so without long-term spending control. The result was a bargain nobody wanted, a game of chicken in which across-the-board cuts in domestic spending would be matched with even heavier defense cuts.
A recent poll by The Hill found that most voters have no idea what the sequester is. "Some were even under the impression that sequestering involved pitching an elected official out of office," noted Katy Steinmetz at Time. According to The Hill poll, 25 percent of voters did not know what the “sequester” meant, while 40 percent got the wrong answer.
The White House has frequently tried to distance itself from the sequester. On Feb. 8, spokesman Jay Carney told the press, "The fact of the matter is, as I think you all recall in the wake of the passage of the Budget Control Act, it was the Republicans, including the Republican leader of the House, who celebrated it as getting 98 percent of what they wanted.”
But the Washington Post has repeatedly reviewed this claim, finding that the White House did originally propose the sequester, but both sides embraced cuts in "security spending (pain for Republicans) balanced by nonsecurity spending (pain for Democrats). But the fact remains that both sides agreed to take this step together."
The looming cuts are a big deal. "It could mean fewer FBI agents and cuts to free pre-school programs, reduced loan guarantees for small businesses, furloughs for food safety inspectors and less manpower for the Internal Revenue Service to process tax returns," wrote Nancy Cook at National Journal. "This says nothing of the military budget cuts. Already, that threat has delayed the take-off of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Sequestration would cut $1.2 trillion over the next decade from federal spending, with the $85 billion as the first annual installment."
National Journal's survey of its National Security Insiders found that 78 percent believe the sequester will hit. "I hope I'm wrong," one insider wrote, "but the legislative and executive branches have not been able to find enough common ground to convince me they can avoid sequestration. This has the potential for devastating effects on national security and the economy."
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].