But What Does the Sequester Mean For Me?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 2 2013 11:30 AM

But What Do the Cuts Mean For Me? A Sequester FAQ For the Rest of Us.

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The US Capitol is pictured on the eve of the budget sequester on February 28, 2013

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The long-looming sequester officially went into effect late Friday night, when the White House issued a formal notice to federal agencies to begin slashing their discretionary budgets. It's never been the most exciting story, but beginning at midnight it became a very real one. You've probably got questions. Fortunately, Slate's got answers. We'll try to keep things simple and avoid the wonky weeds when we can.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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OK, I admit it. I spent the past week falling in love with Jennifer Lawrence, the week before that trying to wrap my head around the whole Oscar Pistorius thing, the week before that freaked out that a giant meteor might land on me, the week before... well, you get the picture. The world's full of stories that are a whole lot more interesting than one where Washington lawmakers turn a verb into a noun. Can you start with the basics, like what the heck is the "sequester" and where did it come from? 

In short, a sequester is a formal term for mandatory cuts to the federal budget. This particular sequester was originally created back in 2011 when lawmakers struck an eleventh-hour debt-ceiling compromise. In theory, the mere possibility of those cuts was supposed to ensure that Congress's so-called supercommittee would have no other choice but to strike a deal to trim the federal budget by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Notice we said in theory. In reality, the panel failed to live up to its super name, and so began the slow march toward today. (The sequester was technically set to kick in at the end of 2012, but a thirteenth-hour deal to avoid the fiscal cliff on New Years Day pushed the cuts off until March 1.) 

So at midnight the government slashed its budget by more than a trillion dollars? That sounds like a lot.

It is, but it doesn't happen all at once. The cuts are actually spread out over the next decade. This year's sequester includes: $42.7 billion in defense cuts (or about an 8 percent reduction); $28.7 billion in domestic discretionary cuts (5 percent); $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts (2 percent); and about $4 billion in other mandatory cuts. Add that all up and you get $85-odd billion for this year. The cuts would then increase to about $110 billion beginning next year and continue through 2021.

No one told me there was going to be math involved. I thought you promised you'd keep this simple. Can't you just tell me what this means for me?

Assuming you're not a federal employee, you probably won't notice anything major for at least a few weeks. As Matthew Yglesias put it last week, "any halfway competent agency is going to be able to keep things running more or less as they have been recently" for most of this month. That means while the cuts may eventually impact everything from the price of meat (thanks to fewer health inspectors) to how long you wait in line at the airport (fewer TSA agents) to the nation's unemployment rate, the American way of life won't exactly change overnight.

So I don't have to pay attention until April at the earliest? Fantastic!

Yes, and no. The way the law was structured and the way the cuts will be implemented has denied reporters like us the cathartic opportunity to announce, "BOOM, the sequester-poclypse is upon us!" or some similarly Twitter-ready declaration. But in reality, the sequester has existed for more than a year, and we've been slowly and surely inching toward it day by day, hour by hour since then. To put it another way: The cuts were created in 2011, they went into effect Friday, and the nation will begin to feel the impact in the days that follow. Exactly how soon, we don't know. But we'll feel them a little more in the coming weeks, and even more the following month. And even more the month after that. And so on, all the way to either 2021 or whenever Washington decides to replace it with something else. It's been a gradual buildup, but one that began to accelerate exponentially at the stroke of midnight. (One thing that is certain: life is about to get a whole lot more complicated at the Pentagon, where the sequester will twist and twirl the world of defense contracting into contortions heretofore unseen.)

Boring!!! I live in the present and the near-future only, so should you. What happens next?

It depends on where you live. As the Washington Post explained last week, the cuts will impact each community differently. If you live in a big city, which relies on federal funding for social programs, or near a military base, which employs tons of government workers, you'll probably start to notice the sequester quite a bit sooner than if you live in the a middle-class suburb or rural area.

Why is that?

For starters, those areas will simply be hit harder and more directly by the cuts. But on top of that residents there are also more likely to preemptively change their behavior. If you live in Killeen, Texas, for example, where the cuts could furlough thousands of Fort Hood's civil service workers for one day each week beginning next month, the sequester will become a whole lot more real beginning Monday when 30-day notices of the coming furloughs go out. That means some in those communities may start pinching pennies sooner than later, which will effect everyone from local home builders to coffee shops that much sooner.

Oh. But isn't this just another temporary game of partisan brinkmanship? Washington will hammer out one of their last-minute deals to avoid this, even if it just kicks the can down the road a few more months, right?

History would certainly suggest that they will, but the present reality has plenty of people doubting that. Congressional leaders and President Obama met face-to-face to talk about the sequester for the first time Friday morning with about 12 hours to go before the mandatory cuts kicked in. The White House meeting began at 10:18 a.m. and was over at 11:10 a.m, the only apparent change being that Washington was about one hour closer to the self-imposed cuts that it had been steadily inching toward for months. That followed a pair of Thursday votes in the Senate on two possible sequester-avoiding bills, neither of which ever had a chance of passing given the partisan divide. The White House believes that the impact of the cuts over the next several weeks will bring Republicans back to the bargaining table on taxes. The GOP, meanwhile, says that's not going to happen.

Man, this stuff manages to be both excruciatingly boring and kind of terrifying all at once.

True story. It also may become a little more of both in the coming weeks.

Wait, come again?

The next fight—there's always a next fight in Washington—will occur over how to keep the federal government running for another year. The current stopgap bill that does that runs through March 27. If and when that expires, we're looking at one-day-a-week furloughs multiplied by five, for pretty much the entire government. In other words: government shutdown.

How about a little good news before we wrap this up?

That we can do. Both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner suggested after Friday's brief meeting that they hoped to avoid such a shutdown, even if it meant leaving the sequester in place.

But aren't those the same people who told us back in 2011 that the sequester wouldn't actually happen because Congress would strike a deal to avert it in time?

Yes, yes they are.

Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.

This post was originally published on Friday, March 1. It has been updated to reflect that the sequester is now official.

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