If no one backs down, big cuts in federal spending begin Friday. Should Americans be worried?
A primer on the nation's latest fiscal standoff—how we got here, who could get hurt and possible ways to end this thing:
Like life in a bad Road Runner cartoon, the United States has survived the New Year's "fiscal cliff," double rounds of debt-ceiling roulette and various budget blow-ups over the past two years. Now the threat is $85 billion in indiscriminate spending cuts that would hit most federal programs and fall hardest on the military.
By law, these cuts known as the "sequester" will begin unfolding automatically at week's end unless President Barack Obama and Congress act to stop them.
Why did they agree to a law like that? In hopes of finally getting the nation's trillion-dollar-plus annual budget deficits under control.
Isn't deficit-cutting good?
Obama, nearly all of Congress and plenty of economists say two things:
1) The budget deficit needs to be reduced.
2) The sequester is the wrong way to do it.
"Only a fool would do it this way," says Paul Light, a budget expert at New York University.
It makes him think of the movie "Dr. Strangelove," with Slim Pickens riding bronco on an atomic bomb, waving his cowboy hat.
The sequester was designed to land with a mighty splat—to create such a mess if allowed to occur that lawmakers would do the right and honorable thing and negotiate a measured, meaningful and discerning package of deficit reduction to head it off. But that didn't happen, so the sequester is about to.
And, yes, that should mean progress on the nation's debt. The sequester is one of several developments expected to restrain the nation's red ink after four straight years of deficits topping $1 trillion.
Are the cuts really that bad?
It's unlikely they will be as bad—or at least as immediate—as some overexcited members of the Obama administration have made out. But the cuts have the potential to be significant if the standoff drags on.
Early on, about 2 million long-term unemployed people could see a $30 cut in benefit checks now averaging $300 a week. Federal subsidies for school construction, clean energy and state and local public works projects could be pinched. Low-income pregnant women and new mothers may find it harder to sign up for food aid.
Much depends on how states and communities manage any shortfalls in aid from Washington.
Furloughs of federal employees are for the most part a month or more away. Then, they might have to take up to a day off per week without pay.
That's when the public could start seeing delays at airports, disruptions in meat inspection, fewer services at national parks and the like.
An impasse lasting into the fall would reach farther, probably shrinking Head Start slots, for example.
Much of the federal budget is off-limits to the automatic cuts. Among exempted programs: Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants and veterans' programs.
Even so, officials warn of a hollowed-out military capability, compromised border security and spreading deterioration of public services if the sequester continues. It's "like a rolling ball," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "It keeps growing."
Maybe it's fiscal-crisis fatigue.
Americans are yawning this one off. Only 27 percent of those surveyed for a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll last week said they had heard a lot about the looming automatic spending cuts.
Less than a third think the budget cuts would deeply affect their own financial situation, according to a Washington Post poll. Sixty percent, however, believe the cuts would have a major effect on the U.S. economy.
That's what economists and business people are nervous about.
The political standoff is the factor that economists blame most for the slowing economy, according to the latest Associated Press Economic Survey. The uncertainty is causing businesses to hold back on investment and hiring, and it's making consumers less confident about spending, economists warn.
How did it come to this?
Obama and congressional Republicans have been deadlocked over spending since the GOP won control of the House in 2010, with a big boost from tea party activists who champion lower taxes and an end to red-ink budgets.
House Republicans refused to raise the nation's borrowing limit in 2011 without major deficit cuts. To resolve the stalemate, Congress passed and Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which temporarily allowed borrowing to resume, set spending caps and created a bipartisan "supercommittee" to recommend at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Republicans and Democrats on the committee failed to compromise, however.
That triggered the law's doomsday scenario—the so-called "fiscal cliff" package of across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts.
In a New Year's Eve deal, Obama and Congress agreed to raise taxes on some of the nation's wealthiest earners. And they postponed the spending cuts for two months—until Friday.
That was supposed to buy time to cut a deal.
As the days melt into hours, neither side shows sign of blinking—or even negotiating.
Obama insists on a blend of targeted spending cuts and tax increases. Republican leaders reject any more tax increases and say the savings must come from spending cuts.
While both sides talk about reducing the deficit, Obama and other Democrats say this must be done gradually, to avoid wounding an already weak economy.
The president is taking his case to the people, blasting Republicans at campaign-style events. GOP leaders, just back from a congressional vacation themselves, are publicly grousing that Obama should be bargaining with them, not grand-standing.
Is there a way out?
Expect intense negotiations to begin in Washington if enough Americans begin yelping about the pain from reduced federal spending.
Obama and Congress could agree to pare down the budget cuts to a more logical package of reductions, perhaps with some tax changes, too. Such a deal could also retroactively restore spending where they want to.
The "sequester" isn't the only line in the sand, however.
On March 27, legislation that has been temporarily financing the government expires. Without agreement to extend it, the threat of a government shutdown looms again. Later in the spring, it will be time to raise the nation's debt limit again.
So far, two years of budget crises have been settled with quick fixes. They have barely dented the underlying disagreement over how to reform Medicare, Social Security, taxes and spending to address the nation's long-term deficit problem.
If those festering questions remain unanswered, the U.S. economy will remain a hostage to politics.
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