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
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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