6 Questions (and Answers) About the Sequester

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Most of the sequester apocalypse, of which Obama's Cabinet has warned, relates to government-worker furloughs: Airport-security lines will get longer because TSA agents will work one fewer day every two weeks, thinning out the workforce; fewer commercial planes will fly because of furloughs to air-traffic controllers; prisons will be locked down because Bureau of Prisons staff will be sent home; terrorists may go undetected because fewer FBI agents and counterterrorism analysts will be working.

Those furloughs won't begin until April, at the earliest. In most cases, government agencies must give workers 30 days' notice before furloughing them. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for instance, expects some of its furloughs to begin April 7, but it's still haggling with unions over notification procedures.

But other bad things could happen before then. State programs that rely on federal money will have to begin accounting for lesser funds as soon as President Obama orders the sequester into effect on Friday. Government contractors, meanwhile, will feel the cuts immediately.

5. WILL IT GET FIXED?

TBD. President Obama and congressional Republicans have each proposed their own ideas to avert the sequester, but the two sides haven't agreed yet.

At this point, the sequester is all but assured to go into effect. Obama will meet with congressional leaders Friday morning, but negotiations haven't exactly been substantive thus far.

Given the sequester's all-around unpalatability, the likeliest scenario appears to be a short-term fix after the sequester kicks in for a few weeks.

6. HOW CAN IT GET FIXED?

President Obama and his GOP counterparts, distant as they are on matters of fiscal policy, have a few remaining options to keep the sequester from wreaking its oft-alleged, oft-doubted chaos:

  • A grand deficit deal. This probably will not happen. The sequester originally sucked $1.2 trillion out of projected federal appropriations over the next 10 years, and an equivalent measure of deficit savings -- it could be tax revenue, it could be spending cuts, or it could be a combination -- is what's needed to eliminate the sequester over the long haul.

    Given how little sides have been talking over the last few weeks, it's almost completely impossible that such a grand deal will get struck before 11:59 p.m. on Friday, when Obama will be legally required to order the sequester into effect.

  • Give agencies more authority. As Republicans and journalists have astutely noted, the cuts aren't all that big, depending on how you count them. They're less than 2.5 percent of all government spending—although what those critics don't mention is that the cuts are concentrated in discretionary accounts, hence the nine and 13 percent reductions in nondefense and defense spending.

    So why not give federal agencies broader authority to rearrange their money and shrink overall spending while maintaining the most vital programs and services? If the Justice Department can save money by means other than furloughing FBI agents, why not let it?

    Republicans have reportedly fought over this, and President Obama has resisted the idea of leaving the sequester in place, even with more leeway to make the cuts less painful.

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