The cuts are widespread and painful for those affected, but they are also not nearly as dramatic as the factoids produced by a complete government shutdown. (Sad schoolchildren can't go to national parks! Travelers can't get passports!) In the past, shutdowns have played relatively well for Democrats, who get to remind people of the good things government does, while Republicans look mean for depriving us of those things. The sequester is instead forcing government to make dumb choices that only reinforce the idea that the government can't make common-sense choices.
The idea was that this was such an irrational way to run a government that Congress would desperately come up with a better compromise. "Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument," reads a legal analaysis from the Office of Management and Budget. "With the single exception of military personnel accounts, the Administration cannot choose which programs to exempt, or what percentage cuts to apply. These matters are dictated by a detailed statutory scheme." In other words, across-the-board spending cuts really means across the board: managers cannot prioritize which things are more important. To indulge in a personal budget analogy, if you sequestered yourself and had to trim your monthly expenses by 2 percent, you couldn't simply eat out less often and skip Starbucks on the way into work. You would instead have to figure out a way to spend 2 percent less on your groceries, electric bill, gas money, gym membership, clothes, magazine subscriptions, movies, and every other thing you buy. The sequester may not cut spending by much, but it is designed to be a huge pain. As Slate's Fred Kalplan reported earlier this year, for the Pentagon, which needs to cut 9 percent from "non-exempt discretionary defense funding," it means that "every single program, project, and activity—every line item in the Pentagon budget, from the biggest weapon system to the smallest spare part—has to be cut by that same 9 percent." Does that sound dumb? That's because it's supposed to be dumb.
We all remember that the sequester was supposed to be so horrible that Congress would be so desperate to stop it that it would come up with some kind of bargain to raise taxes and lower spending. But the way the sequester actually works has been largely forgotten by many people, including some in Congress. On Monday night, The Daily Show had a particularly brutal tape of Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky embarrassing himself when he was grilling the Federal Aviation Administration's Michael Heurta about sequester-related flight delays. "How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand?" Rogers asked. "Not a word, not a breath -- you didn't give us any forewarning this was coming." That's actually a big fat lie. The Daily Show aired clips of news reports warning of delays back in February, and Huerta explained the FAA had warned major hubs would feel delays. Rogers, having been exposed as another pol too bored by the sequester to pay attention to what it would do, responded with this killer zinger: "Well la-ti-da."
Rogers isn't the only one who didn't bother to figure out how the sequester worked. There's also the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which complained in March that the White House had cancelled tours, but divisions of the Agriculture Department funded conferences on small farms and community health. The Journal said:
Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn noted in a Tuesday letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that while these conferences may be "fun," or "even educational," they reveal an agency unable to set priorities that serve taxpayers as opposed to its own bureaucratic interests.
Yes, they are unable to set priorities. Because that was the design of the sequester! The Agriculture Department said its furlough of meat inspectors would shut down meat production for 11 days, so in late March, Obama signed a bill giving the Agriculture Department $55 million — most of what the sequester took away. An anonymous Republican House aide told The Washington Post that would be a problem, because making everyone feel the dumb pain "was the whole point of sequestration to begin with."