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Sequester: Sixth time's the charm?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on the eve of the budget sequester February 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Today is the day the S-bomb -- sequester -- drops, though not for the first time in our history.

There have been sequesters before, five actually. The last time was 1991, when Barry Anderson served as the top civil servant at the Office of Management and Budget. He says that sequester was miniscule compared to today’s. The largest cuts were just 2 percent of any budget. Still, it was a pain to carry out.

"It is truly extraordinary…how detailed it was," he says.

The OMB had to oversee budget cuts for every discretionary government activity -- even down to maintaining lighthouse buoys in the Chesapeake Bay. That task prompted a confused government employee to contact Anderson directly.

“So I got a call from this guy saying, “How do I do this? I’m supposed to cut a couple percentage points of the funding for this, but all it is is floating out in the Chesapeake bay with its lights flashing,’” the former OMB official recalls.

Turned out, the only occasional task was to scrape bird droppings off the buoys.

"So I said, ‘You gotta do a 2 percent cut. Next time you send somebody out, have them only clean up 98 percent of the bird guano,’” Anderson says. “You can see the type of difficulty you can have implementing something like this."

The first sequester in 1986 was big -- more than $10 billion in mandated savings (today's sequester calls for $85 billion in cuts between now and September 30). That experience sobered Congress up about across-the-board cuts, says Jim Savage, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"It was painful enough so there weren't any big sequesters after that. They always found a way to get around it," he notes.

Until today.

Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, tried to head off a sequester-style showdown by working to forge a deficit-reduction compromise between Republicans and Democrats. His blueprints with former White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, haven’t gained traction. This time around, he says some government agencies may opt for high-profile cuts to drive home a point. 

“They’ll go in and say, ‘Ha ha, we’re gonna close Yellowstone National Park. We’ll shut down the Smithsonian,’” he says. “They have a whole handful of stuff they can roll up solely dedicated to pissing off everyone in America.”

And maybe sober up the current generation of lawmakers.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.
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