6 Questions (and Answers) About the Sequester

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Giving agencies more flexibility poses two problems. First, it fundamentally changes the sequester by making it more palatable. When Congress and Obama agreed on it in 2011, the sequester was designed as a punishment for failing to reach a broadly acceptable deficit deal. If the cuts aren't so bad, the intent of forcing a deal will be abandoned. Second, it cedes power to the Obama administration, which members of Congress don't like. As Sen. John McCain put it in a recent interview, Senate appropriators spent many hours juggling the funds for Defense programs—why simply let Obama undo their work?

  • A temporary fix. Washington has already done this once.

    When Obama and Congress passed their fiscal-cliff deal in January, they delayed the sequester by finding two months' worth of deficit reduction to match the sequester's spending levels and decided to prevent the sequester from kicking in until March 1.

    That's not how it's supposed to work. The sequester law, written into the 2011 Budget Control Act, doesn't let Obama and Congress simply buy their way out of the sequester with related savings, a few months at a time. What Obama and Congress did was to undo the sequester temporarily.

    This worked because everyone agreed on it. They found $24 billion by raising taxes and cutting waste from some government programs, and that was enough to match the spending levels the sequester would have implemented. At the same time, they changed the sequester's start date, altering the original law and halting the sequester because they all agreed that was O.K.

    There's no reason, legally, why that can't happen again. When President Obama addressed national TV cameras last week to protest that the sequester shouldn't be allowed to happen, he suggested that Congress pass a temporary measure to give both sides enough time to reach a long-term deal.

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