How Congress Came to Love the Thing It Hated Most

Sequestration was designed to attract Congress's wrath. Now, with few other options available, it's becoming Congress's favorite tool.

It was supposed to be impossible. The assumption by the president and by members themselves was that the abominable, indiscriminate spending cuts known as "sequestration" would never become a reality.

Two and a half years later, the cuts are alive and doing a little better than well. In the last three months, Congress has signed itself up for another three years of sequestration, mandating across-the-board spending cuts to mandatory programs through 2024.

How did we get here? To put it simply: There isn't any money.

That isn't strictly true, of course; Congress just passed a $1.012 trillion budget and allocated those funds to the various departments and agencies of government in a follow-up spending bill. They even raised the debt ceiling through March of next year.

But after years of cutting spending in the wake of the tea-party wave of 2010, with no alterations to mandatory-spending morasses like Medicare or tax reform, Congress is running out of areas to cut back and find available funding for new programs. On the discretionary side of the budget, members are essentially left turning over seat cushions looking for change.

"We're getting to the limit, frankly — and I'm not suggesting we're there yet — of where you're going to cut discretionary spending," said Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, as he wrapped up work on his spending bill last month.

"A lot of people don't realize unless you actually sit and work the budgets, the first year when we reduced discretionary spending it wasn't too tough because we were coming off of the money that had come in for the stimulus and we could cut back. The second year, a little more painful. Third year, getting really ugly. So we're getting to where — if you want to get down to where [the House Republican] original budget was, it gets pretty damn ugly," Simpson added.

Spending bills brought to the floor last year under the Republican budget figure couldn't even get a majority of Republican votes, much less Democrats, Simpson noted.

Appropriators like Simpson are in a tough position this year. They'll have to pass their bills before September, just months before the midterm elections — when Republicans will be pushing for deeper spending cuts and Democrats could push for funding new programs to elaborate on their election-year theme of income inequality.

But Congress will have just another $2 billion to deal with in the appropriations process — a relatively small figure when it comes to discretionary budgeting — and there won't be much room for large-scale alterations to this year's spending bills without a major overhaul of the nation's tax system or serious changes to entitlement programs. Neither is likely in 2014.

"There's really little more we can do on the discretionary side. And the president and Democrats make it clear they don't want to do anything on entitlements. So we're just locked in a difficult position," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.

In the interim, members are showing a penchant for returning to sequestration as the ultimate offset for new programs and changes to old ones. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and her House counterpart Paul Ryan added two years of mandatory sequestration cuts in order to cut spending in their budget agreement in December. And just this week, members added another year to reverse unpopular cuts to military pensions. The legislative cuts will now expire in 2024.

As Murray headed into the Senate chamber to vote in favor of adding another year of mandatory spending cuts, she was asked whether sequestration will be the go-to offset in the future. "Let's take it one day at a time," she laughed.

But with so few other options for spending cuts and offsets, Congress could easily add a few more years of sequestration in 2014.

That's concerning for members, who worry about the potentially devastating effects of 10 years of hacksaw cuts to Medicare and Social Security in particular. But the concern is particularly acute among conservatives, who are anxious over adding new spending programs in exchange for offsets 10 years down the line, which could easily disappear by the time they're set to take effect. Part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal, after all, was reducing some of the sequester cuts for mandatory and discretionary programs.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., cited those concerns earlier this week when House Republicans considered attaching another year of mandatory sequestration to the debt-ceiling deal. An offset that is delayed for 10 years, he said, "is no offset at all."