WASHINGTON -- "Sequestration" -- it’s a word most Americans didn’t know until a couple of months ago.
That’s when Congress and President Barack Obama failed again to reach a budget deal that would keep the U.S. economy from falling off a "fiscal cliff."
That "cliff" was a series of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that would take place on January 1 if lawmakers failed to agree on a budget.
The sequester was born around 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, when Congress passed an emergency bill that steered the country away from the edge of the cliff and set a new deadline for agreement.
As a way of forcing themselves to reach a deal by the new date, lawmakers wrote in a "nuclear" option: If agreement wasn’t reached by March 1, massive, across-the-board spending cuts would automatically take effect.
The prospect of $85 billion worth of indiscriminate cuts in domestic and defense programs was meant to be so frightening that lawmakers would have no choice but to make a deal by the deadline.
"This represents, in my judgment, a massive failure -- the latest example of governance failure in Washington, D.C.,” says William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “Sequestration was designed never to go into effect. It was designed to be such [a] stupid policy that surely the two political parties would get together on something better, but instead they haven’t."
A Sledgehammer Blow
Galston could be speaking for most Americans, who were bracing for what some economists say will be a sledgehammer blow to the fragile U.S. economy.
So why couldn’t lawmakers reach a deal?
Obama won reelection in 2012 on promises to protect programs that help the poor and elderly and to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes. Republicans, who kept their majority in the House of Representatives in that election, reject tax increases and want deeper cuts in social programs. Neither side has budged.
In an effort to build public pressure on Republicans, Obama traveled across the country warning of the consequences of sequestration. On February 19, with the deadline 10 days away, he laid out what sequestration would mean in the starkest possible terms.
“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness,” he said. “It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research; it won't consider whether we are cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day -- it does not make those distinctions."
But many Republicans say the president’s public criticism hurt his chances of reaching a compromise. Obama met with leaders from the Senate and the House of Representatives at the White House on March 1 in a last-ditch effort aimed at a deal.
The standoff raised tensions in Congress and appears to have driven party leaders further apart.
“For 16 months, the president’s been traveling all over the country holding rallies instead of sitting down with Senate leaders in order to try to forge an agreement over there in order to move a bill,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) on February 26. “We have moved a bill in the House [of Representatives] twice. We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something."
Boehner’s counterpart in the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, fired back.
"You know, I was raised in a little county that had 13 brothels in it, so I’m used to some pretty salty language, and I understand who is sitting on their posterior,” he said. “We’re doing our best here to pass something. The speaker is doing nothing to try to pass anything over there."
Full Slate Of Cuts
So what and who will be affected by the sequester?
The pain won’t be felt immediately. In some areas it will be weeks before any effects are noticed.
But it’s already caused fear: Nearly 60 percent of Americans think the cuts will damage the economy, according to a Gallup poll
The last time the U.S. government faced sequestration, in 1991, agencies struggled with what to cut. As “The Washington Post” reported
, an official at the Commerce Department was actually advised to "scrape 5 percent less bird poop" off navigational buoys in Chesapeake Bay to save money.
Here’s some of what has already happened, and what might happen, as the full slate of cuts proceeds:
-- Hundreds of illegal immigrants have been freed from jail on "supervised release" while their cases are processed;
-- The aircraft carrier “USS Harry S. Truman’s” deployment to the Persian Gulf has been delayed;
-- Fewer food inspections will take place, which will raise safety risks for consumers, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Agency;
-- More than half the country’s roughly 2.8 million government workers may be furloughed (i.e. put on temporary unpaid leave);
-- of those, 800,000 civilian defense department employees might be furloughed, "putting [America] on a path toward a hollow force," according to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta;
-- The nation’s busiest airports might have to close some runways and furlough air-traffic controllers, which would cause flight delays and cancelations;
-- 14,000 school teachers could be sacked and 70,000 children kicked out of pre-kindergarten school programs;
-- National parks visiting hours will be reduced and thousands of seasonal workers who staff the parks won’t be hired.
So what’s Congress’s next move?
Likely nothing, until March 27. That’s when the temporary law known as a Continuing Resolution, which has been keeping the government operational without a budget, expires. Members of Congress consider that the real "drop-dead" date, when the consequence of inaction won't just be spending cuts, but a government shutdown.
Unless they decide to postpone that deadline, too.