Sequestration: History of an Obscurantist Bit of Beltway Jargoneering

The latest in Washington’s self-induced crises is called the “sequester.” It is a product of the 2011 Budget Control Act bringing us to the current crisis. It began in the summer of 2011 during the debt-ceiling negotiations, where, if we recall, House Republicans held the economy hostage to obtain unrelated policy concessions. So as Michael Tomasky writes, both parties signed on to this thing:

In April, Obama spokesman Jay Carney said it was the president’s position that raising the debt limit “shouldn’t be held hostage to any other action.” On May 11, Austan Goolsbee, then Obama’s chief economic adviser, said that tying a debt-limit increase to spending cuts was “quite insane.”

On May 16, the United States went into technical default, but the Treasury Department was able to string things along a few more weeks. Tim Geithner made it clear that the real problem would hit August 1. A key moment, as Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress wrote in The Huffington Post, came on May 31. That’s when the GOP-run House voted on Obama’s request for a “clean” debt-limit increase. It failed, and all 236 Republicans voted no.

Out of the Republican rejection came the decision to include the sequester in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Future cuts were traded for a resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis. The terms of the 2011 Budget Control Act were set to expire on December 31, 2012 precipitating the “fiscal cliff” crisis, which was resolved in a last minute deal that resolved questions of revenue but not spending cuts (sequestration) postponing the later until March 1, 2013.

As usual, Washington seems to have settled on a completely obscure bit of jargon to describe something, which raises the question of where “sequestration” comes from.

The Congressional Research Service defines sequestration as “a process of automatic, largely across-the-board spending reductions to meet or enforce certain budget policy goals.” These are mostly indiscriminate, across the board cuts, (with some exceptions) that will hit March 1 if Congress and the White House don’t reach an agreement before then.

Sequestration has a fairly long history of use predating the current crisis. It was first used in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 to impose deficit reduction goals. Half of that sequestration would have come from domestic spending and half from military spending while certain programs including Social Security, Medicare, interest on the debt and anti-poverty programs exempt from the cuts. Later, it was used in the 1990s to “enforce statutory limits on discretionary spending” and as a requirement on pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) legislation. However, this expired in 2002 and was not used again until the 2010 Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act to enforce the PAYGO requirement.

As a term, sequester is nothing new, but it has taken on a new form in this highly polarized environment on Capitol Hill. Instead of enforcing PAYGO legislation, it has evolved into a Sword of Damocles to force a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. But at the moment, getting sliced looks likeliest.

Rhiannon M. Kirkland

Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.