What the Federal Sequester Actually Means, and Why It Matters

A few weeks back, I had a casual conversation with my friends about the federal sequester. I noted that most of the discussion was dictated by speculation and fear-mongering rather than a real analysis of any of the proposed spending cuts brought about by the sequester.

For my friends, it was the first time they had heard of a budget sequestration. I, however, remembered the 2011 congressional battle over our nation’s debt ceiling. That gridlock of two years ago lead to a pledge to cut $2 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. $1 trillion of these cuts were clearly outlined in the 2011 debt-ceiling bill. The other $1 trillion cuts  were left to sequestration — undesirable automatic and gradual spending cuts aimed at deflating our $16 trillion national debt if no other spending reduction agreement could be reached.

Instead of negotiating as a Congress to agree on budgetary cuts to the departments the sequestration will directly affect, our legislators delayed those negotiations to 2013. Two years ago, they forewent any discussion into smart and sufficient reductions that might have been easier to brace for than the 2013 across-the-board cuts. For two years, this delay removed spending reduction out of the general populace’s attention, only to abruptly emerge around the March 1, 2013 budget deadline, when no budget reduction deal was reached and the painful sequester went into effect.

The result of not delaying the sequestration has forced our nation’s largest bureaucracies to make very difficult decisions. The results include the laying off of federal workers and the implementation and increase of unpaid furlough days. Other effects include substantial pay cuts for workers and decreasing efficiency at some of our already most frustrating encounters with federal agencies (yes this means longer lines at the airport).  Reduced funding for national parks, reduced funding for federal work-study programs, and fewer food inspections are also products of this legislative inability to work in a bipartisan and competent manner.

Fortunately, there are some sequestration exemptions. Social security benefits will not be affected, for example. Medicaid health insurance for low income recipients, child-nutrition programs, military pay (not including civilian workers) and even Pell Grants for us students are also exempt. Contrary to Internet propaganda, the sequestration will not bring about a government meltdown.

Knowing that sequestration will not result in an apocalyptic government shutdown will mitigate tensions generated by the media-blitz surrounding the topic. However, the very real consequences many Americans will feel in their day-to-day lives as a result of the sequester still remain. One can only hope that constituents will use the failure of the sequester as a clear reason to force our legislators’ hands and  to seek their assurance that as we move forward with reducing our deficit, the burden does not fall on those who are most unable to carry it.

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