Tomorrow, barring a last-minute Washington miracle, President Obama will officially order the highly-anticipated, much-dreaded "sequestration" - an across-the-board set of budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion from defense and non-defense spending over the course of the next ten years. The administration has been vehement in its calls for Congress to find a way to avert the legally-mandated package: The cuts, Mr. Obama says, will result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, crippling losses for the nation's public education system, defense cuts that would leave the country unprepared for future military engagements, and a number of day-to-day inconveniences, like long lines at the airport and the shuttering of some public parks.
As sequestration officially becomes law of the land, however, its impacts won't immediately be clear: Despite warnings of an economic turndown, cuts for 2013 will be rolled out over the next several months, triggering a government slowdown that will hit different agencies with various degrees of speed and impact as time goes on. And its toll, whatever it ends up being, will likely be drawn out and murky, with sources nearly unidentifiable to the average voter.
"It will be like a rolling ball," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, of the manner in which the cuts will impact the economy, in remarks to reporters this week. "It will keep growing."
What will happen on March 1?
According to the Budget Control Act of 2011, sequestration will cut $85 billion from the federal budget in the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year, slashing about $1.1 trillion more over the next decade. The White House has recently released a slew of memos detailing what they believe those cuts would look like on both a state and program level:
"The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) now calculates that sequestration will require an annual reduction of roughly 5 percent for nondefense programs and roughly 8 percent for defense programs," according to one fact sheet. "However, given that these cuts must be achieved over only seven months instead of 12, the effective percentage reductions will be approximately 9 percent for nondefense programs and 13 percent for defense programs. These large and arbitrary cuts will have severe impacts across the government."
According to the White House, that means "10,000 teacher jobs would be put at risk, and funding for up to 7,200 special education teachers, aides, and staff could be cut"; loans to small businesses would be reduced by up to $540 million; research and development would be stalled as thousands of researchers and scientists would be at risk of losing their jobs; and "up to 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults and seriously emotionally disturbed children could go untreated," among other impacts.
Those calculations, however, assess the impacts of sequestration over the course of the fiscal year. But assigning and implementing those reductions will take time, and agencies will presumably do their best to blunt or delay the impacts of the reductions, moving money around, reassigning carry-over funds, delaying the announcement of new contracts and grants, and taking advantage of whatever flexibility they have.