Everyone Is Asking About Sequestration, So Let's Explain What That Is, Exactly

FILE - This March 20, 2012 file photo shows House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama walk down the steps
FILE - This March 20, 2012 file photo shows House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama walk down the steps of the Capitol in Washington. The people of an intensely divided nation just created a government that looks the same way as the one before. The only hope for progress on creating jobs and everything else would be if Obama and Republicans in Congress could find some incentive to compromise. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

According to Politico, America is suddenly super-interested in "sequestration" -- what it is and what it means for their lives -- now that the election is over. See, people are now on the teevee, talking about the so-called "fiscal cliff" that's looming, and so everyone is at home Googling the phrase "What is sequestration" now that they no longer have to Google "Who is running for President" to find out who was running for President.

The topic of sequestration was helped into mainstream consciousness by President Barack Obama’s and Speaker John Boehner’s public remarks on the fiscal cliff. But until Election Day, most voters were confused on the issue.

“I think a lot of people are still uninformed about sequestration. It’s a long word. It’s a complicated process,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told Politico. He and his fellow defense advocates had long worried over the past year that the wonkiness of the issue would prevent more people outside Washington from appreciating what was at stake.

Well then, let's see if we can make the matter of sequestration less long, complicated, and wonky, shall we?

What is sequestration? When people talk about sequestration, or "sequester cuts," in this context, they are referring to a series of draconian budget cuts, totalling $1.2 trillion, that are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. These cuts are evenly split between defense and domestic discretionary spending (with some exemptions, such as Social Security, Medicare, and veterans' benefits).

That sounds familiar, but I mainly recall this being discussed in terms of pending cuts to the military. Yes. That's because the defense industry is massive and they loudly lobby the government and complain about the cuts. "Discretionary domestic spending" refers to "government programs for poor and vulnerable citizens" and they have do not have as equally powerful lobbies or the same kind of access to legislators. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that these cuts would be terrible. (Which is, in a sense, a good thing, because suddenly we have the dyed-in-the-wool deficit crackpots acknowledging the laws of Keynesian gravity.)

If everyone agrees that these cuts would be terrible, why were they scheduled to happen at the end of the year? The reason we are facing the sequestration is because the "Super Committee" that was formed to come up with $1.2 trillion of more carefully targeted spending cuts failed to do its one job. The irony is that at the time of the Super Committee's formation, it was widely believed that the sequestration was an awesome idea that would totally guarantee the Super Committee's success. By hanging the sequestration over everyone's heads like the Sword of Damocles, they reasoned, the members of the Super Committee would be Super Motivated to reach a Super Agreement. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) heralded the sequestration as a victory of bipartisanship and a welcome change in Congress' culture.

Well, why didn't it work? Because the Super Committee was populated with "members of Congress" and "members of Congress" are hollow and cowardly and remembered that an alternative option to "successfully reaching a deal" was "failing to reach a deal and then reneging on their previous agreement to face the agreed-to consequences."

Sounds like all of this was doomed to failure from the outset. Yes. I could have warned you that this was going to happen. The Super Committee should have just skipped over the parts where they pretended to care about reaching a deal and gone right to the part where they failed miserably and thus saved everyone some time. It's a failure that's been repeating itself for the past few years. Prior to the Super Committee, we had the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was essentially tasked with solving the same problem, and essentially failed in the same spectacular way. And the only reason we had the Simpson-Bowles Commission was because President Obama had to create it after the GOP co-sponsors of a Senate bill that would empanel a congressional deficit commission bailed on the measure at the last minute.

So what happens now? Well, the facts that Obama won reelection and Democrats have padded their numbers in the House and Senate have altered the calculus somewhat, providing the White House with deal-making leverage that it didn't previously enjoy. It remains an open question whether the GOP will recognize that leverage and cut a deal, but there are signs of a thaw. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for instance, has offered to help craft a compromise if Obama will agree to "say yes to Simpson-Bowles." The implication there is that the GOP is open to tax increases, but it should be met with some skepticism. (It is likely, for example, that Graham doesn't understand that "Simpson-Bowles" begins with the assumption that the Bush-era tax cuts on upper-income earners have been ended, and that once he realizes this he will do what he always does and blow up the promised agreement.)

So, the big takeaway is that we should never do this again? Should we trust Congress when they say they will meet in a committee to draw up substantial spending cuts? Going forward, it's going to be hard to do so. The good news, however, is that if we can avoid the nonsensical level of fiscal austerity that the sequestration is threatening, Congress can start work on a more critical, near-term project that I like to call "ameliorating the negative effects of that gigantic financial collapse that happened four years ago." Getting the long-term budget trajectory in line is something that can be safely put off until after we've solved the unemployment and foreclosure crisis, and we'll have already gotten a good head-start on that once the Clinton-era tax rate levels on upper-income earners are restored. This is what the American people want Congress to do anyway -- as usual, they do not give a tinned turd about the deficit.

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