What is a Budget Sequester?

Every day that passes without a deficit-cutting deal makes it more likely that the federal government will be forced into its first "sequester" in nearly 30 years, a problem of politicians' own making that could suck billions of dollars out of the economy.

The sequester is Washington jargon for using the threat of automatic spending cuts to force action on reducing the debt. The term doesn't mean much to most people outside the capital, and you could be forgiven for assuming that the president and lawmakers will scramble at the last minute to dodge their deadline and set up a new one. That is, after all, how the current predicament came to be.

But politicians are cutting it awfully close, making the risk very real, scholars and analysts say.

And the stakes have arguably never been higher: the sequester is just one of three looming fiscal deadlines, each with its own potentially calamitous impact on the tenuous economic recovery.

"This is unprecedented," said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Washington D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, who served as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee in the early 1980s, when the last sequester showdown occurred. "I'm a historian of this stuff, and this has never happened together, these things. I don't know what the technical term is down here, but where I'm from, New Mexico and Colorado, we call it 'a goat rope'...chaos and confusion, where nobody knows what's going on."

The sequester is scheduled to go into effect March 1, triggering the opening phase of cuts that will total more than $1 trillion between now and 2021. Most of the reductions would be divided evenly between the defense budget and non-defense spending that isn't already mandated by law (those mandates include Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps). It is up to the president to decide how to apply cuts to those so-called discretionary spending items.

Then, on March 27, comes a temporary appropriations measure that is keeping the federal government running. Without a renewal there will be a shutdown of all non-essential functions.

Finally, in mid-May, a statutory limit on the federal debt, which has been temporarily lifted, will go back into effect and make it difficult for the country to pay its bills.

The chances of all three of those threats becoming reality remain distant. But given the state of partisan discord, it appears "extremely likely" that the sequester will happen, Bell said.

The last time Congress imposed a sequester was 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president -- with limited results.

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