Federal government should brace for a gathering storm

Sequestration is a mind-numbing word that leaves many of us without even a basic grasp of its meaning and virtually everyone without a clue about its potential effect on the workings of federal government.

We usually hear that term in reference to a jury that's being kept under wraps to ensure none of its members come across a newspaper article or other information that could taint their deliberations.

But it's the congressional version that keeps us up at night. Congress adopted the term to describe "a process of automatic, largely across-the-board spending reductions, under which budgetary resources are permanently canceled to enforce certain budget policy goals."

This mouthful comes from a 26-page report prepared by the Congressional Research Center for members of Congress, because, apparently, they needed help understanding it, too.

Sequestration, according to the report, "was first authorized by the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985," an order more commonly known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Commonly known by whom, we're not sure.

So it's not an entirely new concept, but it is a looming issue with implications for every American.

The Budget Control Act of 2011, signed into law by President Obama last August to resolve the debt ceiling crisis, makes use of sequestration as an enforcement measure.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which was directed under the act to find $1.2 trillion in savings, had the opportunity to avoid sequestration.

But in typical congressional fashion, the parties couldn't agree on a package of cuts and tax increases that would total $1.2 trillion, and the opportunity to avoid sequestration slipped away.

The cuts will come anyway, but Congress missed its chance to take a surgical approach reduced the deficit in a way that protected priorities -- our nation's defense, for example.

Sequestration is more like taking a meat ax to the mess -- no room for precision and plenty of blood.

Because the folks elected to look out for our nation's best interests failed, sequestration -- automatic spending reductions -- are set to be triggered Jan. 2.

As the deadline approaches, sequestration is suddenly a buzz word in the world of politics and for those who live or die by federal spending.

What does that mean for Mid-Columbians? We don't think anyone is trying to figure that out.

The process would cut $1.2 trillion from federal spending over nine years, beginning in 2013. Exemptions exist for programs like Social Security and Medicaid and others, so the sky is not falling entirely.

But if nothing changes before the end of the year, most everything else in the federal budget is set for across-the-board cuts, regardless of its value to taxpayers.

The cuts mandated by sequestration are vast, so we'll slice off a piece as an example.

Security programs like the Department of Defense, and the nonsecurity side of government share equally in the misery, with $55 billion set to be cut from each category beginning in January.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that it would "inflict severe damage on our national defense."

A recent study by George Mason University estimates would mean 2.14 million lost jobs and decrease work force earnings by $109.4 billion.

The really scary part is that by all appearances, the federal government isn't making any preparations to soften the blow. Private sector businesses have reportedly already begun to cut back, preparing for the likelihood of sequestration. But our federal government can't seem to do the same.

It might be politically expedient to avoid formulating plans. Contingencies that include layoffs -- and most would -- are a topic anyone running for re-election is would rather avoid.

But failing to plan now only compounds the damage. It will leave government agencies and some contractors struggling to figure out how to cut spending retroactively back to the start of the fiscal year.

There is only one way to make that work -- impose deeper cuts going forward to make up for money that shouldn't have been spent in the first place.

The only hope to prevent that is for Congress to get its act together and find a compromise on budget cuts. Nothing we've seen coming out of Washington, D.C., makes that seem possible.

The threat of sequestration hasn't been enough to motivate Congress to this point. With elections approaching in November, any change in leadership won't come in time to forestall disaster. The federal fiscal year begins in October.

The federal government should be preparing for the worst -- not counting on a miracle from Congress.