The S-Word (Or, Sequestration 101)

Caution: Lots of learning contained in the post below; read at your own risk.

First, a quick text study. Pay attention to the pronouns.

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20, JPS Translation edited for gender-neutrality)

Notice anything? In the first sentence, they (the magistrates and officials) govern with justice, but right afterwards, you shall not judge unfairly. At the beginning, this passage seems to be directed towards all of us as citizens, teaching us how to elect our government. The point of view quickly changes, however, and now we become the rulers ourselves. What we thought was a simple process (we vote and it’s over) soon becomes an involved lifestyle (we are now accountable for our government’s actions even after we’ve elected them). With so much focus right now on the upcoming election, it’s time we spent a moment focusing on our current government and what they’re doing while all eyes are on the campaign trail.

One thing Congress is doing right now is a whole lot of nothing. Last week, Congress left for a recess that will last until after the election. And there’s a lot of unfinished business. Specifically, I’m talking about $1.2 trillion of unfinished business known as “sequestration.”

Sequestration was designed to put pressure on Congress to reach an agreement on budget cuts. Congress gave itself two years to decide how to cut the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years. To give it some incentive, they designed the sequester (“the sequester” = “sequestration,” it’s just sometimes easier to say). Under sequestration, $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts will begin in 2013 and last through 2021.

Rewind. (That was already a lot of economics for a Friday morning).

(You can skip this paragraph if you understood the one above. If you’re normal, and totally lost, go ahead and give this one a try). Congress decided in 2011 that they needed to cut the federal deficit. They set a goal for themselves of cutting it by $1.2 trillion spread out over ten years. (By the way, this is in addition to another $1 trillion they had previously cut by setting caps on discretionary programs.)

Then, like that scene in “Blazing Saddles” where the sheriff points the gun at his own head and says, “Stop! Or I’ll shoot!” Congress created the sequester. Sequestration is a motivation for Congress to act. It’s a package of automatic federal spending cuts that would be triggered if Congress does not reach its goal by January 2, 2013.

Sequestration was designed as a threat, not something to actually take effect. As such, its cuts are drastic and far-reaching – it requires big hits to both defense spending and things like programs for Women, Infants, and Children. Sequestration was designed to hurt everyone’s priorities, so that everyone would have an incentive to avoid it. This was supposed to be the fire under Congress’ you-know-what, forcing them to agree on something, some way to reduce the deficit.

This brings us to to today – to the beginning of this recess. Congress has still not passed anything to reduce the deficit by the required amount, so sequestration still looms (set to take effect on January 2, 2013).

Want to know what happens next? So do I. So stay tuned at RACBlog as we continue to cover the possible options Congress could choose and what they mean.


(Photos courtesy of AAUW, clipart,

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Raechel Banks

About Raechel Banks

Raechel Banks is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. She grew up in Dallas, TX, as a member of Temple Emanu-El. She recently graduated from Brandeis University.


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