How Sequestration Got Its Name

Automatic cuts to federal funding for a broad range of crucial services are in full effect. As the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has written, this so-called federal sequestration will have a direct, disastrous impact on health care, education and jobs across Pennsylvania.

Many people do not know much about the sequestration, its roots, or its total impact. A recent blog post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones offers a nice primer. He writes that the term sequestration stems from a 1985 law:

[The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act] set out a series of ambitious deficit reduction targets, and to put teeth into them it specified that if the targets weren't met, money would automatically be "sequestered," or held back, by the Treasury Department from the agencies to which it was originally appropriated. The act was declared unconstitutional in 1986, and a new version was passed in 1987.

Sequestration never really worked, though, and it was repealed in 1990 and replaced by a new budget deal. After that, it disappeared down the Washington, DC, memory hole for the next 20 years.

Drum writes that it was revived in the summer of 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling standoff between President Obama and House Republicans. The automatic sequestration cuts were intended to go into effect if a "super committee" of lawmakers were unable to put together a deficit reduction plan.

To make sure everyone was motivated to make a deal, the sequester was designed to be brutal: a set of immediate, across-the-board cuts to both defense spending and domestic spending, starting on January 1, 2013. The idea was that everyone would hate this so much they'd be sure to agree on a substitute. 

Needless to say, no such agreement was reached. So now we're stuck with the automatic sequestration cuts.

Drum offers a lot more on how the sequester is structured, what it means, and what could be done to change it.

As we have blogged in the past, the across-the-board cuts set in motion by sequestration will have disastrous effects in Pennsylvania. It means:

  • 5,400 Head Start slots for low-income children will be lost;
  • $26.4 million in funding for primary and secondary education will be lost, as well as $21.4 million for children with disabilities (meaning 29,000 fewer students will be served, and 90 fewer schools will receive funding);
  • 78,454 jobs will be lost in FY2012/FY2013;
  • 3,500 fewer individuals suffering from substance abuse will receive services;
  • 1,000 fewer domestic violence victims will be served; and
  • 6,000 fewer HIV tests will be available.


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