Everything You Need to Know About the Sequester: The Most Boring Budget Crisis Ever

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There is nothing more tedious in the world today than the sequester. The word itself sounds like a prescription sleeping aid. So let's keep this brief.


In the debt ceiling standoff of 2011, President Obama wanted to simply raise the debt limit. House Republicans wanted budget cuts. So they came to an agreement. The debt ceiling would go up and spending would be cut -- in two steps. First, they agreed to cut $900 billion over the next decade. Second, they agreed to agree to $1.5 trillion in additional cuts. Where would these additional cuts come from? A 12-person, bipartisan, bicameral SUPERCOMMITTEE would decide. And if the SUPERCOMMITTEE failed? There was a back-up plan: $1.2 trillion across-the-board, nobody-wants-them cuts that would go into effect this year. That back-up plan was called ... THE SEQUESTER.

In other words, Washington agreed to hold itself hostage. The theory was that the fear of the SEQUESTER would push the SUPERCOMMITTEE to reach a deal. It didn't work out. So here we are. The SEQUESTER is set to kick in on March 1, and the plan that nobody wanted might actually happen. Here are the three things you need to know about it from the Bipartisan Policy Center's comprehensive breakdown.

1. It will cut $85 billion in 2013, with half of that coming out of Defense.
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2. It will bring non-defense discretionary spending -- things like infrastructure, schools, and R&D -- in 2014 down to its lowest level since 1970

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3. It will cost us between 700,000 and one million jobs over the next two years.

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In short, it's a bad idea whose time should never come. It will only kneecap the recovery without meaningfully altering the trajectory of our long-term debt. Now, Congress could create a 12-person, bipartisan, bicameral committee to come up with replacement cuts, but that this point, they should probably just cancel, and go on living their lives. Call it a grand bargain.

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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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