How Congress Came to Love the Thing It Hated Most

Sequestration was designed to attract Congress’s wrath. Now, with few other options available, it’s becoming Congress’s favorite tool.

Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Feb. 14, 2014, midnight

It was sup­posed to be im­possible. The as­sump­tion by the pres­id­ent and by mem­bers them­selves was that the ab­om­in­able, in­dis­crim­in­ate spend­ing cuts known as “se­quest­ra­tion” would nev­er be­come a real­ity.

Two and a half years later, the cuts are alive and do­ing a little bet­ter than well. In the last three months, Con­gress has signed it­self up for an­oth­er three years of se­quest­ra­tion, man­dat­ing across-the-board spend­ing cuts to man­dat­ory pro­grams through 2024.

How did we get here? To put it simply: There isn’t any money.

That isn’t strictly true, of course; Con­gress just passed a $1.012 tril­lion budget and al­loc­ated those funds to the vari­ous de­part­ments and agen­cies of gov­ern­ment in a fol­low-up spend­ing bill. They even raised the debt ceil­ing through March of next year.

But after years of cut­ting spend­ing in the wake of the tea-party wave of 2010, with no al­ter­a­tions to man­dat­ory-spend­ing mor­asses like Medi­care or tax re­form, Con­gress is run­ning out of areas to cut back and find avail­able fund­ing for new pro­grams. On the dis­cre­tion­ary side of the budget, mem­bers are es­sen­tially left turn­ing over seat cush­ions look­ing for change.

“We’re get­ting to the lim­it, frankly — and I’m not sug­gest­ing we’re there yet — of where you’re go­ing to cut dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing,” said Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who chairs the Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment, as he wrapped up work on his spend­ing bill last month.

“A lot of people don’t real­ize un­less you ac­tu­ally sit and work the budgets, the first year when we re­duced dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing it wasn’t too tough be­cause we were com­ing off of the money that had come in for the stim­u­lus and we could cut back. The second year, a little more pain­ful. Third year, get­ting really ugly. So we’re get­ting to where — if you want to get down to where [the House Re­pub­lic­an] ori­gin­al budget was, it gets pretty damn ugly,” Simpson ad­ded.

Spend­ing bills brought to the floor last year un­der the Re­pub­lic­an budget fig­ure couldn’t even get a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­an votes, much less Demo­crats, Simpson noted.

Ap­pro­pri­at­ors like Simpson are in a tough po­s­i­tion this year. They’ll have to pass their bills be­fore Septem­ber, just months be­fore the midterm elec­tions — when Re­pub­lic­ans will be push­ing for deep­er spend­ing cuts and Demo­crats could push for fund­ing new pro­grams to elab­or­ate on their elec­tion-year theme of in­come in­equal­ity.

But Con­gress will have just an­oth­er $2 bil­lion to deal with in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess — a re­l­at­ively small fig­ure when it comes to dis­cre­tion­ary budget­ing — and there won’t be much room for large-scale al­ter­a­tions to this year’s spend­ing bills without a ma­jor over­haul of the na­tion’s tax sys­tem or ser­i­ous changes to en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams. Neither is likely in 2014.

“There’s really little more we can do on the dis­cre­tion­ary side. And the pres­id­ent and Demo­crats make it clear they don’t want to do any­thing on en­ti­tle­ments. So we’re just locked in a dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion,” said Rep. John Flem­ing, R-La.

In the in­ter­im, mem­bers are show­ing a pen­chant for re­turn­ing to se­quest­ra­tion as the ul­ti­mate off­set for new pro­grams and changes to old ones. Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray and her House coun­ter­part Paul Ry­an ad­ded two years of man­dat­ory se­quest­ra­tion cuts in or­der to cut spend­ing in their budget agree­ment in Decem­ber. And just this week, mem­bers ad­ded an­oth­er year to re­verse un­pop­u­lar cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions. The le­gis­lat­ive cuts will now ex­pire in 2024.

As Mur­ray headed in­to the Sen­ate cham­ber to vote in fa­vor of adding an­oth­er year of man­dat­ory spend­ing cuts, she was asked wheth­er se­quest­ra­tion will be the go-to off­set in the fu­ture. “Let’s take it one day at a time,” she laughed.

But with so few oth­er op­tions for spend­ing cuts and off­sets, Con­gress could eas­ily add a few more years of se­quest­ra­tion in 2014.

That’s con­cern­ing for mem­bers, who worry about the po­ten­tially dev­ast­at­ing ef­fects of 10 years of hack­saw cuts to Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity in par­tic­u­lar. But the con­cern is par­tic­u­larly acute among con­ser­vat­ives, who are anxious over adding new spend­ing pro­grams in ex­change for off­sets 10 years down the line, which could eas­ily dis­ap­pear by the time they’re set to take ef­fect. Part of the Ry­an-Mur­ray budget deal, after all, was re­du­cing some of the se­quester cuts for man­dat­ory and dis­cre­tion­ary pro­grams.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., cited those con­cerns earli­er this week when House Re­pub­lic­ans con­sidered at­tach­ing an­oth­er year of man­dat­ory se­quest­ra­tion to the debt-ceil­ing deal. An off­set that is delayed for 10 years, he said, “is no off­set at all.”

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