Sequestration, the deficit reduction fall-back of the Budget Control Act that “will not happen,” is going to happen this Friday (a primer, if needed). Even with Congress returning this week it doesn’t appear as though there’s serious interest in doing anything about it. As I’m sure anyone who follows Washington can attest to that lack of interest can be explained in many different ways. Politics, mostly, is what I tell folks. As I saw noted on Twitter yesterday, it “might be the first piece of legislation passed ironically to actually go into effect.”
Yet one of the (primarily Republican) talking points to surface in this slow dive towards a legislative pool with too-little water — beyond the too-cute #Obamaquester campaign — got my attention yesterday; the message that sequestration isn’t a big deal because it only amounts to 2.4 percent of total federal spending over the next ten years. Such a perspective seems at odds with Speaker of the House John Boehner’s description just seven days ago, characterizing it as “an ugly and dangerous way” to cut spending. Of course politics often moves as the speed of necessary message-framing, so it dovetail’s quite nicely with the more recent ‘too cool for school’ attitude coming from some House Republicans on sequestration. That being said it raised a question in my mind; exactly how much of the federal budget will be exposed to these automatic spending cuts?
First, a helpful graph detailing the argument that these automatic spending cuts are small-beans compared to total federal spending (courtesy of Heritage):
Hm. Sequestration doesn’t look nearly as scary on a graph compared to total outlays, which is perhaps the most relevant political answer to the question of “Why compare it to total spending?” I suppose it’s also a good way to goose base-conservative support for more spending cuts. From a policy standpoint, though, there is an objective point to make on why the cuts are so small in such a large context, which is also the answer to my original question — basically, the sequester falls on a relatively small portion of the federal budget. Via the Bipartisan Policy Center (PDF):
To be more specific, roughly 84 percent of cuts are directed towards budget areas that make up for roughly 30 percent in total spending. Believe it or not this used to be a point of conservative objection (again, graph courtesy of Heritage):
Not every aspect of these categories gets the axe, but it exposure to sequestration is substantial; here is more detail from the Bipartisan Policy Center:
Subject to the sequester: Base (non-war) defense discretionary funding in the CR (extrapolated for the full fiscal year), war funding, unobligated balances from previous years, and some of the Hurricane Sandy aid.
Subject to the sequester: Base (non-war) non-defense discretionary funding in the CR (extrapolated for the full fiscal year), some war funding (largely for international affairs), most emergency and disaster aid (including that related to Hurricane Sandy), funding financed by offsets, program integrity funds, and advance appropriations from prior years.
Subject to the sequester: Most non-defense mandatory spending is exempt, but many programs such as farm subsidies, extended unemployment benefits, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children will be subject to the sequester.
Setting aside the relative uselessness of projecting debt concerns in 2052, as it stands now our long-term debt problem is a healthcare cost story — not PBS, carried-interest loopholes, corporate jet tax breaks or the Corporation for National Service. It’s not even particularly a government story (see Table 1 here). Which isn’t to say that debating non-health related expenditures is without merit in a more general sense, but anyone telling you they’re the path to long-term budget sustainability is being dishonest. The ultimate irony of sequestration is that it’s largely besides the point.