Evan Soltas
May 29, 2013

Sequestration as Devastation

(Originally published here.)

To really understand what sequestration means, look to next year.

The $85-billion cut to federal spending began this March and hit government in an intentionally indiscriminate fashion. It was a 7.9 percent cut to defense spending and a 4.6 percent cut to other programs. Next year, however, sequestration is different in two ways: It's much deeper and much more selective. The results won't be pretty.

Sequestration will lop $92 billion off the 2014 budget. On top of that, $35 billion of last year's cuts go into effect next year, according to a Congressional Budget Office report. This is because of the difference between "budget authority" and "outlay." (The former is what Congress appropriates to an agency in law, whereas the latter is actual spending. Outlays lag authority, as not all spending takes place in its authorization year.)

More important, sequestration will work in a new way. In 2014, Congress will choose which agencies face cuts -- the process is no longer automatic. It starts in the House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee. Last week, the committee adopted a blueprint for next year's cuts, and this shows just how painful sequestration will be. Even the committee's Republican chairman and members admitted it.

"The guillotine of sequestration has fallen," said Representative Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who runs the committee. "There are going to be some ugly numbers in there," Representative Mike Simpson, a committee member, told Politico.

Here's what he means: a 26 percent cut in the budget for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. These agencies are losing a combined $43 billion relative to their 2012 budget, adjusted for inflation. Such cuts aren't merely unreasonable or inhumane, they're also likely to be operationally impossible.

It's hard to see how this budget would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to put the Affordable Care Act into place in 2014. It's hard to see how the Department of Labor could keep going -- even before these cuts, it's seen no inflation-adjusted increase since the 1970s. It's hard to see how the Department of Education could avoid deep cuts to Pell Grants, special education and aid to local schools, the agency's three largest budget items.

For the last few years, politicians have enjoyed a curious luxury: They've been able to talk about making "hard choices" without actually making any. All the big changes to the budget since 2010 have been at least partly automatic. Sequestration was, as it were, remotely triggered, which absolved lawmakers of responsibility. This changes in 2014: Next year, Congress will own the consequences of its actions.
Rogers described his proposed cuts as "the hand sequestration is dealing us." That's nonsense. These will be cuts of choice. The remarkable and disturbing thing is the choices Congress has made.