Congressional lawmakers threw up their hands and headed home last Friday abandoning the last failsafe against $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts, leaving the nation on an autopilot nosedive into the first sequester in U.S. history.
Sequestration refers to the $85 billion in nearly random, automatic spending cuts across the federal budget originally part of the fiscal cliff and slated to take effect Jan. 1, 2013.
Hours before plummeting over the cliff’s entirety of automatic tax increases, spending cuts and government program shutdowns, Congress voted to temporarily raise the debt ceiling (the amount of money the country can borrow to continue functioning) and set later deadlines to scale the different edges of the cliff.
Unable to agree on two different sequester resolutions in the Senate last Thursday, Feb. 28, Congress essentially gave up and adjourned for the weekend.
In a last-ditch effort among a field of ditches dug to this point, President Barack Obama met with congressional leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill to try and work out a compromise with little hope of a result.
“Today, Republicans in the Senate faced a choice about how to grow our economy and reduce our deficit. And instead of closing a single tax loophole that benefits the well-off and well-connected, they chose to cut vital services for children, seniors, our men and women in uniform and their families,” Obama said after the Senate dismissed last Thursday.
Democrats want big tax increases and small budget cuts, while Republicans want big budget cuts and no tax increases, with both sides hoping the other will take the blame in the public and media when the slow recovering economy begins to show symptoms.
The gradual cuts will occur over seven months into Sept. 30 with defense spending taking the hardest hit by losing 13 percent of its budget, and programs in scientific research, education and law enforcement losing an average of 9 percent.
Political scientists and economists disagree over the impact of sequestration on the nation and the economy, with some comparing it to changing course and slowly turning an aircraft carrier in the ocean.
Others liken it to driving a car down the highway at a high-speed and suddenly shifting the car into reverse.
However, soon the effects are felt in 2013, this edge of the cliff is only one drop in the decade-long sequestration law mandating automatic cuts up to $1.2 trillion if no compromise is made.
“I’m happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending at today’s meeting. But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said before Friday’s meeting with the president.
Congressional leaders are bracing themselves for the next steep edge in the form of a potential government shutdown when the continuing resolution currently funding the budget-less government expires on March 27.
“We’ve talked about the CR, he’s going to have to make a decision on what they’re going to do. At this stage, at least as far as I know, I don’t know if they know what they’re going to do,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said about a conversation with Republican House Speaker John Boehner last week.
Autopilot partisanship will have to set a new course for compromise to avoid federal engine shutdowns that threaten to send the nation further into a tailspin of the unknown.