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Sequestration's blunt and indiscriminate budget cuts

A little over a year ago, the House and Senate failed to reach a deal on how to cut the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

In the wake of that epic Congressional fail, bipartisan majorities in both chambers voted for sequestration, a financial threat that was supposed to force lawmakers to eventually act.

That threat also appears to have failed.

Sequestration, or automatic across-the-board cuts applied equally to defense and nondefense programs, is set to kick in on Jan. 2, 2013.

How bad will the budget cuts be?

Pretty bad, because, as the 394-page Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report issued Friday explains, "sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument."

394 pages of OMB sequestration report 14Sept2012Since there are so, so many numbers in the White House office's report, I couldn't choose just one. So the document's massive size itself is this week's By the Numbers figure.

What will be cut? But we can't ignore the other numbers. So here are some selected dollar amounts of the impending automatic cuts.

Cuts in defense spending are set at $54.7 billion or 9.4 percent of the 2012 budget amount.

Nondefense spending cuts at the many agencies covered in this area represent an 8.2 percent reduction in costs.

Some key breakouts in the nondefense cuts are:

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has the largest science-spending budget and whose projects include research into cancer and childhood diseases, would lose $2.52 billion.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would lose $464 million.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would lose $318 million.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would lose $463 million for research and related activities.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would lose $417 million from its science budget, $346 million for space operations and $309 million for exploration.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which among its many responsibilities helps track hurricanes, would lose $257 million.
  • The Department of Energy (DoE) would lose $400 million of its science account.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would have to make do with $580 million less for disaster relief.
  • Global health funding through USAID and the State Department would decrease by $670 million.
  • Various nutrition programs for families would be cut by $558 million.
  • Student financial assistance would drop by $140 million.
  • Low-income home energy assistance programs would be reduced by $285 million.
  • Aging services programs would lose $121 million.
  • Immigration and customs enforcement activities would lose $453 million, while customs and border protection would lose $712 million.
  • The Internal Revenue Service's taxpayer services programs would have to operate on $185 million less.

There's still a chance that Congress and the White House can agree on ways to avoid the cuts, but the House has already announced an abbreviated schedule for the rest of the year.

That gives lawmakers very little time to deal with such a serious situation, and they won't even start working on it until after the November elections.

The timing factor is just one reason that I'm skeptical that the deep budget cuts can be avoided.

But I hope I'm wrong, because in addition to the crunching the numbers, OMB analysts got the overall economic and legislative situation right: Sequestration is not a responsible way to make policy.

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