At its heart, sequestration isn't all that complicated: The idea was that, unless Congress could agree on a responsible, intelligent way to balance the budget, deep, across-the-board cuts would go into affect, hitting most government programs. The plan was simple and brutal, the legislative equivalent of a parent's ultimatum: Play nicely together or I'm taking your toys away. And, to continue the metaphor, Congress refused to play well, its toys were taken away, and billions of dollars of automatic cuts went into effect. Cruel, sure, but as the old saying goes, you have nobody to blame but yourself. Especially because in this case, the "parents" are the same entities as the "children" -- the Congress.
In the days since sequestration has started to take hold, however, a rising trend has gripped Congress as a large number of legislators have expressed what TPM's Brian Beutler calls "Sequestration NIMBYism" -- the idea that cuts are fine, as long as they don't touch the programs that these legislators actually care about. As Beutler puts it:
"Sequestration is intended to be indiscriminate. It requires federal agencies to reduce spending by a certain percentage on each of their programs and activities. That means all House and Senate members are likely to see some consequences in their districts and states. But when those consequences materialize, Republicans either blame the administration or plead for special treatment."
Beutler cites a few examples, including Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is complaining about the National Park Service's decision to close campgrounds in his state, and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), who is angry about the closure of an airport in his district. Thune, notably, was not all that energetic about avoiding the sequester: In mid-February, he downplayed the likely impact of the cuts, noting that they only represented about 2 percent of the federal budget. Given his position as chairman of the Senate Republican conference, this wasn't just an idle comment: Thune was an important player in the decision to avoid a budget compromise.
Thune has also led a group of Republican senators in an attack on one of the most visible sequestration cuts: the decision to dramatically scale back White House tours. The move, which was undertaken as part of an agreement between the Secret Service and the President, will save an estimated $74,000 a week, or almost $4 million a year.
It isn't hard to see why the Obama administration and the Secret Service decided to stop White House tours: The Secret Service had to swallow sequestration cuts just like every other department, and trimming White House tours was a relatively painless way to trim spending without impairing its ability to handle its core responsibilities.
Critics argue, however, that the Executive branch is targeting budget items that are especially visible, largely in the hopes of drawing public attention to the effects of the sequester. One legislator in particular, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), has proposed cutting $2.5 million from the Transportation Security Administration to fund the tours. Citing $50 million that the agency recently spent on "uniform-related expenses," Moran said "The same taxpayers who are funding TSA officers' new uniforms are being denied the opportunity to tour the White House -- the people's house."
Interestingly, Moran is suggesting exactly the sort of targeted budget cutting that Congress has been unable to agree on for the past year.
While the decision to cut White House tours has occupied the media, some of the more dire effects of the sequester have largely been ignored. As liberal news site ThinkProgress recently noted, there have been 33 times as many stories about the tours than about cuts to Head Start programs, food stamps, and housing assistance. That focus has been notable (To put it mildly) at Fox News, where Eric Bolling and Sean Hannity have both offered to pick up part of the White House tour bill. On the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Ezra Klein highlighted the strange dissonance:
"No one on Fox is saying we'll dig into our pockets until no unemployed person, or no recently homeless person, has to suffer. Louie Gohmert isn't ending pay for Congress until the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Children is made whole. But White House tours? That's treated as an emergency."
The lesson: Sequestration cuts are only a relatively minor 2 percent of the budget ... until they hit something you care about, or give you a way to score political points.
Sequestration Cuts? Not In My Backyard, Insist Legislators
If you have a child in public school, watch out: $406 million is scheduled to get axed from the Head Start budget, which means that 70,000 kids will be kicked out of the program. Another $840 million is going to get pulled out of special education programs, and the White House estimates that another 10,000 teachers' jobs will be put at risk.
If you're planning to fly anywhere, be sure to pack an extra paperback: The TSA's airport security budget will be cut by $323 million, which means that your already-long check-in line will get even longer. And, while we're at it, it looks like there will be about 10 percent fewer air traffic controllers on the job, which is sure to slow things down even more.
Remember the floods and hurricanes that have devastated large swathes of the country over the past few years? Remember all the complaints we heard (and made) about FEMA's sluggish response to those disasters? Well, get ready for more of the same: Sequestration is going to cut $375 million from FEMA's disaster relief budget.
If you like meat -- or any food, really -- now might be a good time to stock up. The food inspectors who make sure your ground beef isn't ground horse and your chicken isn't a petri dish of harmful bacteria are about to be furloughed. Even non-carnivores are facing bad news: After a $206 million cut to its budget, the FDA will have to cut back on most of its food inspection programs.
Sequestration won't be bad news for everyone: If you're a criminal, it might be cause to celebrate. After all, with $355 million being cut from prison funding, convicts could be out on the street sooner than they expected. And, with $480 million being cut from the FBI's budget, if you've committed a crime recently, you might not need to worry as much about covering your tracks.
If you're a virus, things are looking up for you and your relatives, too. The National Institutes of Health are losing $1.6 billion and the Centers for Disease Control will say goodbye to $323 million. From research to public health programs, this will translate into a real downgrade to our nation's health care backbone.
Unfortunately, things won't be great if you want to take a vacation: With $110 million being cut from the National Park Service budget, many park services will be cut back or closed. In other words, if you're one of the 250,000 people who were planning to visit the Grand Canyon this year, you should prepare for a delayed opening and reduced options.
While not all federal student aid programs will take a hit in 2013, sequestration is on track to make things tough for low-income college students. The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which can give a needy student up to $4,000 a year, will likely be cut by 8.2 percent, as will federal work study programs. And for students who want to borrow money, student loan origination fees will also go up.
Here's a silver lining to sequestration: It will be educational. For years, this nation has been in the midst of an argument about what role the federal government has and should have in our daily lives. For anyone who has wondered what the government really does for them, the next few months will be an outstanding lesson in where, exactly, your tax money goes.