Sequester 101: What happens if cuts kick in March 1 and four other questions

The sequester is a complex concept with a tortuous history. Here are the basics on the automatic spending reductions set to kick in March 1.

2. What is the sequester set to actually do?

The sequester would spread out about $109 billion in cuts per year, every year, for 10 years.

As lawmakers already paid for $24 billion this year, the overall level for 2013 now stands at $85 billion. But there’s another twist: The $85 billion is really more like only $44 billion in actual cuts over the next six months of the fiscal year – because some of the cuts would apply to spending obligations that stretch out over multiple years.

A standard year of sequestration, with $109 billion in cuts, would see about half that total, some $55 billion, come from the Pentagon. This is the side of the equation meant to bring Republicans to the negotiating table.

The Democratic priorities under fire are $43 billion in cuts to all other aspects of government – from education to social services to NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

The final bit ($11 billion) is made up of something that’s annoying to both parties: a 2 percent reduction in payments to Medicare providers.

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