Its Washingtons latest case of economic hostage-taking: If Congress and President Barack Obama dont reach a deal by Friday, the budget gets whacked!
Voters have heard these fiscal threats before. This time, the cuts are part of existing law. Inaction means nearly across-the-board spending cuts, with half taken from the defense and the military.
Heres PolitiFacts guide to that funny word, sequestration.
Whose fault is it?
Both the White House and Congress signed off on an agreement leading to the sequester.
Heres the background: In the summer of 2011, Obama and Congress were in a high-stakes standoff over the debt limit. House Republicans insisted on spending cuts before increasing the debt limit. This was a notable change from the past, when members of Congress would pass debt ceiling increases with relatively little fuss.
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried unsuccessfully to reach a grand bargain to put the federal budget on more stable footing. When that failed, they arrived at the much less ambitious Budget Control Act of 2011.
That law included about $1.2 trillion in future budget cuts, but it also directed Congress to find another $1.2 trillion via a bipartisan supercommittee. As further incentive, the law had a threat: If the supercommittee couldnt agree on a package, or if Congress voted down the supercomittees proposal, a sequester would automatically go into effect.
Both Obama and Boehner supported the plan and urged Congress to pass it, which it did. The supercommittee deadlocked, though, so it never proposed new cuts. Hence the sequester.
Whose idea was it?
It was Obamas idea, but Republicans agreed to it and provided key support.
The most detailed account on this point is in The Price of Politics, a Bob Woodward book about the 2011 debt ceiling standoff. His reporting shows the White House developed the idea and presented it to Democratic leadership on July 28 and to Boehners team two days later.
Both sides saw it as a way to force further negotiations later, according to Woodward. The Obama team thought there was no chance Republicans would allow defense cuts to happen, while Boehner said Democrats would cave to save domestic programs. Woodward quotes Boehner predicting the sequester is never going to happen.
Who wants it to happen?
The prevailing opinion in both parties is sequestration = bad.
What were witnessing now is a game of brinksmanship: Obama has proposed a plan to avert the cuts that combines closing tax loopholes with cutting federal spending; Republicans have offered spending cuts.
They are putting forward proposals that they know the other side is going to reject, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Its like theyre holding out for total victory.
Thats the outward account, anyway. Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says theres a second, behind-the-scenes storyline:
A sizable number of members of Congress want a sequester; the overwhelming majority of them are House Republicans who believe that this is the best way to get a down payment on spending cuts, and dont believe (or care) that national security might be at risk, Ornstein said. Very few Democrats want a sequester; a few think it will backfire on Republicans, and so are secretly happy.