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Originally published February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Page modified February 26, 2013 at 7:10 AM

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Q&A on 'sequestration' automatic spending cuts

A guide to the legislation that requires automatic spending cuts starting March 1.

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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have less than a week to avoid the start of across-the-board government spending cuts, known as sequestration. So far, there is little indication that President Obama and congressional Republicans will reach an agreement this week.

Here are questions and answers about the cuts and where talks stand:

Q: What is sequestration?

A: It’s the official name for the automatic federal spending cuts that will begin March 1. Sequestration will reduce projected spending by $85 billion over the final seven months of this fiscal year and by $1.2 trillion over the next nine years. Half of the cuts will affect military spending; the remainder will be spread over other federal agencies.

Will there be immediate effects on March 1?

Probably not, in many cases. Agencies have had five months — since the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1 — to plan for changes, so the effects may be gradual. That makes sequestration different from a partial government shutdown like the ones that occurred in 1995 and 1996.

What are the consequences for government services?

Under sequestration, the Pentagon would furlough up to 800,000 civilian employees, requiring them to take unpaid time off. Employees must be given 30 days’ notice. Cuts at the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration could mean delays at airports. Spending on child nutrition and housing vouchers also would be reduced.

What are some specific cuts that could happen?

The FAA would probably close more than 100 air traffic control towers, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Feb. 21. The Coast Guard would reduce its presence in the Arctic by one-third, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Feb. 14.

What are the economic consequences if Congress does nothing?

By the end of the year, sequestration would reduce gross domestic product by 0.6 percent and cost 750,000 jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Do the cuts affect all federal spending?

No. Military pay and veterans benefits are exempt, as are Social Security benefits. Payments to Medicare providers would be cut less than other spending, with a maximum of 2 percent. Those exemptions create a disproportionate effect in other areas of the budget, such as defense contracts, meat inspection and national parks.

How big are the automatic cuts?

Compared with annual spending, the cuts will be about 8 percent for defense programs, Danny Werfel, controller at the Office of Management and Budget, told a Senate committee Feb. 14. Nondefense programs face about a 5 percent cut. Because the first year’s cuts would be made over the final seven months of fiscal 2013, the effective reductions would be about 13 percent for defense programs and 9 percent for nondefense programs, Werfel said in a Feb. 8 briefing.

How do agencies decide what to cut?

The law requires them to make equal cuts in every program. Agencies with contractual agreements they can’t break or those that spend a large share of their costs on staff may have little choice other than to implement furloughs.

“Every account has to be cut by a certain percentage,” Werfel said Feb. 8. “It’s not like the agencies can move money amongst accounts.”

What do Democrats want?

Democrats, including Obama, are recommending that a mix of tax increases and spending cuts replace sequestration. Obama says he wants to pursue a broader budget deal that would include a rewrite of the tax code and some cuts to health-care programs.

What do Republicans want?

Republicans, noting that tax rates for top earners rose Jan. 2, say they won’t accept additional revenue as a way to replace the deficit reduction from sequestration. Instead, they say spending cuts alone, particularly in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, should be the solution.

Is Congress going to vote?

The Senate is scheduling a vote as soon as this week on a $110 billion plan that would delay the cuts until January 2014. The plan relies half on spending cuts, such as ending some farm subsidies, and half on higher taxes, primarily a minimum 30 percent tax rate on top earners. The tax provision is known as the Buffett Rule after one of its leading proponents, billionaire Warren Buffett. Republicans are expected to block the proposal from coming to the floor for an up-or-down vote.

What about the House?

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he will consider anything the Senate passes. Last year, the House twice passed bills to delay the automatic cuts and replace them with other spending reductions. Those bills expired when the new Congress began Jan. 3.

Why did Congress create sequestration?

Because lawmakers couldn’t come up with a better option. In August 2011, as they debated an increase in the federal debt ceiling, Republicans were demanding spending cuts equal to the size of the debt limit. Obama wanted a debt-limit increase of more than $2 trillion to get past the 2012 election. Lawmakers agreed to cut about $900 billion up front and do the rest through sequestration, intending to create an outcome so unpalatable that they would come up with a way to avoid it.

Why is it called sequestration?

The name stems from a 1985 deficit-reduction law, when the across-the-board cuts were first enacted to ensure that Congress would act. In 2011, the administration proposed — and Republicans accepted — sequestration as the backstop to deficit reduction if a 2011 supercommittee and regular congressional rules didn’t produce results. They didn’t.

Is this the only fiscal feud?

No. A temporary measure extending government spending expires March 27, and failure to act would cause a partial government shutdown. Several months after that, the U.S. will again approach the debt limit. Any resolution to sequestration could include provisions that would address the other deadlines.

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