There’s a new dirty word in Washington. It’s got nothing to do with acts of physical passion or things that come out of the body. The word is, in fact, altogether boring but its meaning is politically provocative. “Sequestration” is the word and if you’ve turned on the news in recent days it’s a topic you’re likely to hear a lot about.
In short, the sequester entails a series of mandatory cuts to defence and domestic spending set to enter effect this Friday, presuming Congress fails to produce a $1.2trn (€917.3bn) deficit reduction plan by then. And we know how Congress works today. At best, we’re likely to see a temporary stop-gap put into effect with hopes of ultimately producing a difficult bargain. As it turns out though, sequestration was never meant to happen in spite of all the tough talking we’re hearing now.
It all grew out of President Obama’s 2011 Budget Control Act, a rather routine political cat-and-mouse game which sought to encourage a long-term deficit reduction plan. The sequestration policy was laced with painful cuts split evenly between defence and discretionary domestic spending. In what once seemed politically wise, the Budget Control Act included draconian cuts to defence spending in an effort to jolt Republicans into a bipartisan deficit reduction effort. But now, it seems the once sacred cow of defence spending has taken a backseat to the Republicans’ steadfast focus on fiscal responsibility.
Even faced with mandatory defence cuts of $500bn (€381.9bn) over the coming decade, Republicans are holding tight to their promise of focusing deficit reduction squarely on a drop in government spending, not through tax increases. All of this underlies a fundamental paradigm shift in the modern Republican party – that sharp fiscal responsibility trumps defence planning, in spite of cries by outgoing defence secretary Leon Panetta that sequestration could prove disastrous for America’s armed forces.
Sadly, there’s nary a member of Congress who’d tell you that sequestration is anything less than massively damaging to the American economy, at least in the short term. If you don’t believe this, have a look at the report the White House released on Sunday detailing how sequestration would impact the economies of all 50 states. The results are not pretty and few members of Congress will ever boast about this to their constituents.
There are finer nuances to the sequestration debate but it broadly illustrates something that cannot be missed: that Washington’s political brinksmanship – defined here by arbitrary, yet dramatic spending cuts – has real effects on those outside the District of Columbia.
President Obama is correct in his current effort to rally governors with the suggestion that $85bn (€64.9bn) in spending cuts over the next fiscal year will cripple their states. But continued partisan bickering and a lack of visionary leadership are all but certain to cripple this country. Here’s hoping that sequestration is a word we soon forget and that compromise finds its way back into our vocabulary.
Barrett Austin is associate editor for Monocle's New York bureau.