The Budget Control Act of 2011 requires cuts to the federal budget that cumulatively would save $2.1 trillion during the period 2012-2021. One facet of those cuts, commencing in the current fiscal year, would be across-the-board reductions known as sequestration. Under sequestration, all non-exempt defense and domestic accounts would be reduced by a set percentage to achieve targeted savings, with half the cuts coming from defense and half from domestic programs. The percentage reductions in domestic spending would be somewhat lower than for defense because there is a larger pool of funds from which to generate the required annual savings. But the cuts in both areas would be sizable, and would lower the baseline for future expenditures in each year through 2021.
Despite a bipartisan agreement to delay implementation of sequestration from January 2 to March 1, some observers believe that Republicans will eventually insist on triggering across-the-board cuts as a way of permanently lowering federal spending. The tactic might work, but not in a way that most Republicans want. In fact, a simple assessment of how such cuts would be applied to the federal budget suggests that hardworking middle-class voters in the Republican electoral base would be hit harder than other constituencies. You don’t need a calculator or spreadsheet to understand why, all you need to do is think through the structure of federal spending and how the sequestration provisions of the budget law are written.
First of all, the entitlement programs that are driving worrisome increases in federal spending — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — are almost entirely exempted from the process. Sequestration cuts would fall mainly on so-called discretionary spending in the Department of Defense and other government agencies. In one sense that is good for the G.O.P., because Republican voters are just as dependent on Social Security as Democrats and Independents are. But because big entitlement programs are left largely untouched, sequestration would have the perverse effect of increasing the share of federal spending allocated to social welfare programs, the main culprits in creating trillion-dollar deficits.
Second, many of the domestic programs subject to across-the-board spending cuts appear to disproportionately benefit so-called “red” states, meaning states that usually vote Republican. For instance, agricultural support programs funded by the Department of Agriculture, law-enforcement efforts along the nation’s southern border sustained by the Department of Justice, civil works supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers and space centers operated by NASA all benefit red states in a big way, and all would be subject to sequestration. The same is true of national parks maintained by the Department of the Interior and Department of Energy sites in places like South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. People in New England have been complaining for decades that they don’t get much from these agencies for the taxes they pay, which is another way of saying the money tends to go to states where there are fewer Democrats.
And then there is defense spending, which would be cut on the order of 13% in a single year by sequestration except for the pay and benefits of uniformed personnel. As I pointed out in a blog last week, Pentagon spending within the U.S. is concentrated disproportionately in the Republican stronghold of the South, reflecting the fact that states like Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota don’t have many bases. There are hundreds of thousands of civilian Pentagon workers in red states that will be severely impacted by sequestration, including states outside the South such as Indiana and Utah. Most of the joint force’s maintenance depots are located in red states, as are many of the defense industry’s biggest weapons plants.
Now, none of this is a good reason for averting sequestration if you think the programs in question are slowly bankrupting the nation. There’s a lot to be said for eliminating market-distorting subsidies and redundant depots. But Republicans who think across-the-board spending cuts need to be implemented in March ought to realize for whom the sequestration bell of doom is tolling. In many cases, it is tolling for them.