Lurking behind the government shutdown and debt limit battle is the sequester, the Frankenstein-like budget-cutting monster Congress created in 2011.
The 2011 Budget Control Act emerged from the last major fiscal cliff showdown; it cut $917 billion in spending over 10 years in return for allowing the debt limit to rise by $900 billion.
In addition, when the so-called Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to agree on a debt reduction program, the BCA set spending caps that would result in another $1.2 trillion in cuts from projected spending levels through fiscal 2021.
To enforce the caps, sequestration required across-the-board cuts in discretionary defense and non-defense categories if Congress approved higher spending levels.
There was endless publicity over the effect of the fiscal 2013 defense sequester that cut $42.7 billion out of some $528 billion. Less attention went to the $38.7 billion cut out of $489 billion in fiscal 2013s non-defense spending.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said on the House floor Thursday that the sequester had cut 57,000 children nationwide from Head Start.
On Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., noted the irony that because of sequester budget cuts, the National Institutes of Health funding was reduced for the research that just got Yales James Rothman his 2013 Nobel Prize.
For the fiscal 2014 budget, both houses of Congress took care of defense, pushing numbers far above the BCA cap.
On the other hand, the GOP-controlled House slashed the non-defense fiscal 2013 figure below the fiscal 2014 BCA cap level while the Democratic-led Senate would have to drop its figure, $34.3 billion, for 2014 non-defense discretionary funding
On Saturday, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, discussed the effect sequester would have this fiscal year on domestic programs, starting with Head Start, which would cut another 177,000 children.
The rest of his list was equally harsh: 1.3 million fewer students will receive Title I education assistance; 760,000 fewer households would receive less heating and cooling assistance under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; 9,000 fewer special education staff in the classroom; $291 million less for child care subsidies for working families; $2 billion less for the National Institutes of Health, which means 1,300 fewer research grants.
His list goes on.
The fiscal 2014 sequestration cuts are expected to kick in by Jan. 15. What to do about them became a sticking point in current negotiations.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, reflected the GOP perspective on the Senate floor Thursday, saying the two reasons the deficit has gone down is the tax increase demanded by Obama that went into effect in January 2012, and the sequester, which has actually capped discretionary spending for the last two years. That is what has caused a reduction in the deficit, not anything else.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., put her finger on how Democrats look at the problem in a Sunday floor speech.
The House, she said, is willing to take the sequester ... but what they do – which is very disingenuous and what the Democrats will not be for – is basically take the lower number overall, but keeping defense at a very high number, and therefore cutting the heck out of everybody else.
Find a midpoint between those positions and you may get an agreement. But modifying sequester has to be part of the package.