The sequester: Does anyone even care anymore?

This cat looks as disinterested in life as Americans are about the sequester. (Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

This cat looks as disinterested in life as Americans are about the sequester. (Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

By Andrew Scoggin
@AScoggin

Congratulations! By reading this article, you are now better informed about the sequester than three-fourths of Americans.

The sequester, of course, is yet another self-imposed deadline of certain economic doom. If Congress takes no action by Friday, across-the-board cuts take effect that amount to $85 billion for this year and roughly $1 trillion over the next decade.

It’s just that not many outside the D.C. Beltway seem to care. Only one in four respondents in a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll said they were following the so-called “sequester” closely. That’s despite the fact 60 percent of those polled said the cuts would have a “major effect” on the U.S. economy.

In all honesty, we at Politically Inclined are pretty sick of it, too. So many other issues — like immigration, Syria or job creation — deserve way more attention, and the sequester isn’t exactly the stuff of which journalistic dreams are made.

But sometimes a news story is like a fine cough syrup — it might not go down easy, but you’re better off with it than without it.

(Also, why does medicine even have “flavors?” It always tastes like death.)

So just bear with us. We’ll throw in some cute animal pictures or something to sweeten the deal.

What is the sequester?

Literally, “to sequester” means “to set apart,” according to Merriam-Webster. It’s also not really what people in Washington are talking about.

The congressional sequester instead refers to a set of automatic spending cuts installed to address the budget deficit. This set of cuts total $1.2 trillion over 10 years divided between defense and domestic spending (aka “guns or butter”). And because of the way the sequester was implemented, Congress has no say in what stays or goes unless it passes something to replace it.

In theory these are meant to be “across the board” cuts, but some programs are exempt. Medicare would receive only a 2 percent reduction, while others like Social Security and Pell Grants will go untouched.

How did this happen?

Basically, the sequester came about as a way to encourage political action at a time when a compromise couldn’t be met. It hasn’t worked out that way so far.

otter playing basketball

If an otter can play basketball, then surely politicians can compromise. (But seriously, how cool is this photo?)

The law that came out of the debt-ceiling debacle in Summer 2011 set forth a few provisions, including the sequester. With the United States in danger of default and an inability to pay its bills, lawmakers opted for this stopgap to encourage bipartisan legislation at later date in the face of sweeping cuts.

Indeed, as Republicans now point out, the idea for a sequester came out of the White House in National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling. But the Budget Control Act of 2011 received more Republican support than Democratic in the House, and it only came about as other negotiations failed.

A “super committee” made up of members from both parties was formed to find a more suitable compromise than automatic spending cuts, but announced it couldn’t come up with anything in November 2011.

With the cuts set to take effect at the end of 2012, Congress passed a temporary measure to delay them (among other items) until March 1. (The “fiscal cliff” at its finest.)

Since then, there hasn’t been much movement in terms of compromise or anything to offset or yet again delay the sequester, leading some to see the automatic cuts as inevitable.

Why should I care?

Excellent, you’re still with us. This is the important part.

Not even a goat could stomach this. (Are goats cute? You should probably go ahead and watch this anyway.) (Photo by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar)

Not even a goat could stomach this. (Are goats cute? You should probably go ahead and watch this anyway.) (Photo by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar)

Budget cuts, of course, usually mean cuts in services. The question is just how severe.

President Obama has taken his warning of job and service cuts on the road, saying in Virginia on Tuesday that the sequester “will weaken our military readiness.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said it would mean longer security lines at airports, while The New York Times reported the federal government already had to release hundreds of immigrants set for deportation (although the government did not drop their cases).

The White House also released an info sheet on how the sequester would affect each state, including 90,000 Defense Department furloughs in Virginia and 4,180 fewer vaccines in Georgia.

But Republicans say Obama and other Democrats are exaggerating the impact. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said “shame on Ray LaHood” for blaming Republicans for the lack of movement on the sequester. And House Speaker John Boehner said the Senate should get “off their ass” and propose a solution.

Some in the GOP, however, seem OK with the cuts, particularly those in the House.

What in here would specifically hurt young people? The Pell Grants would go unaffected (for now), but federal research funds would dwindle, including a $1.5 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health. Financial aid would receive less substantive cuts, such as a $50 million reduction in work study aid.

Why don’t I care?

Well, we’ve been through this before. There was that near-default in Summer 2011, the payroll tax cut at year-end 2011 and the fiscal cliff at the end of last year. Now, it’s the sequester.

This puppy is rather indifferent about it, too. Or sad.

This puppy is rather indifferent about it, too. Or sad.

In one way, it’s like Chicken Little. A person can only hear that the sky is falling so many times and continue to believe it. Even if it really does happen this time, more people find it a waste of time to worry about it.

The level of interest has fallen, at least from the fiscal cliff to the sequester. In Washington Post-Pew polling, 40 percent of respondents said they followed negotiations during the fiscal cliff “very” closely, compared with just one in four for the sequester. So there’s some fatigue there.

(Chris Cillizza says we shouldn’t underestimate the “catchy name” of the fiscal cliff, although it’s catchy in the way that tuberculosis is catchy.)

There’s also that generally feeling of disinterest, a “been there, done that” feeling. We’ve already seen legislative impasses threaten the economy. Basically, Washington is borrowing too much from the “Fast and Furious” playbook.

But it’s hard to say exactly why you don’t care this time, so why not sound off in the comments below?

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Posted by on February 26, 2013. Filed under Economy,Recent News,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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