What is sequestration? What will it affect?
Days away, sequestration - the dramatic federal spending cuts - may seem like the crisis du jour for the gridlocked U.S. Congress, but the impact would be far-reaching, impacting everything from food inspection, to air traffic control, to defense.
Here's the background on what the sequester is, how it happened and what happens from here:
What is sequestration?
A: Sequestration is a group of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion scheduled to being March 1 and ending in 2021. The cuts are evenly split between defense spending and discretionary domestic spending.
Wars and most spending on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicaid are exempt. The White House says cuts in 2013 will total as much as $109 billion.
Who approved this mechanism?
A: Sequestration was part of the Budget Control Act, passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the Democratic-majority Senate and signed by President Barak Obama. The BCA emerged during a prior fiscal stand-off in which failure to reach a deal nearly led to the U.S. government defaulting on its debt in August 2011. Republicans demanded substantial cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.
President Obama and Congressional leaders ultimately agreed to the BCA, which raised the debt limit in exchange for the establishment of the supercommittee to negotiate future spending plans. The law required the sequester as a fallback. The intent of the sequester is to create across-the-board pain that would pressure legislators into a deal.
"Congress thinks it can force itself to make tough decisions by creating a ridiculous outcome to their failure to make tough decisions in the first place," said Dr. Jean Harris, chairwoman of the University of Scranton's political science department.
Why does everyone hate the sequester?
A: Legislators on both sides don't like the sequester because the across-the-board cuts take them out of the fiscal equation. Because the cuts hit all programs equally, everyone's ox, theoretically, gets gored.
"Sequestration was created to be hated," Harris said.
How would these cuts affect the country?
A: The White House and various government agencies have been releasing data on how federal agencies would deal with sequestration. Last week, a new report issued by the U.S. Army said Tobyhanna Army Depot could suffer more than $300 million in cuts, slashing its budget by more than one-third by Sept. 30. Fiscal organizations and special interest groups also have been outlining how they feel the cuts will hurt federal activities. While some have estimated longer waits at airport security and fewer food inspections, how the sequester would manifest in the everyday life of Americans is uncharted territory.
Can the sequester be avoided?
A: Yes, so long as Congress passes another budget deal that would achieve at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Both Democrats and Republicans have offered proposals to do so, but there has not yet been a meeting of the minds. Republicans don't want to raise taxes; Democrats are reluctant to make dramatic cuts.
"They have to do what Congresses past have done: negotiate, compromise and make bipartisan decisions looking more broadly at raising taxes and cutting spending while addressing also Medicare - the fastest growing uncontrolled federal expense," Harris said. "But where are they? They are on recess. Imagine any American worker with something this important to get done and decisions this important to make who went on a break. Most people would agree such a worker should be fired."