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Where does the term ‘sequester’ come from?

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Sequestration doesn’t just refer to budget cuts. You can sequester juries during trials or carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Catholic cardinals are sequestered to choose a new pope.

“It’s all about being kept separate,” says Mignon Fogarty, better known by her online handle Grammar Girl and the author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. “It comes from a Latin word that means to remove or separate or keep in a safe place.”

Sequester was first used in reference to budget politics in the mid 1980s. Under President Ronald Reagan, the economy was doing well, says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “But both parties were worried that domestic spending continued to grow, but taxes had been cut significantly.”

So Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. It set targets for deficit reduction and said that if Congress and the President couldn’t agree on how to meet those goals, the money would be automatically taken away. With that, the sequester was born.

Just like now, Zelizer says politicians might have used the word sequester to talk about budget cuts without actually having to say budget cuts.  

“It’s inside-the-Beltway rhetoric that’s being used intentionally to try to keep some of this inside the Beltway,” he says.

Senator Phil Gramm from Texas (R), now retired, thinks the name is crystal clear.

“To me, sequester conjured up taking something off the table, withholding something,” he counters.

He’s the “Gramm” in the title of the law and the one who put sequestration in the bill.

“It’s always helpful if when you invent a term, if it already conjures up what you’re try to say,” he adds.

Gramm says the term was actually suggested to him by then House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-TX). They also considered “impoundment,” but it had already been used for something else.

Now, Gramm stands by both the name and the idea behind it: That sequestration should be a last resort, a final backstop on overspending.

“If a sequester is what you got to do to get people’s attention, I would do it,” he says.

While Gramm says he’s more proud of raising two sons, he doesn’t mind being known as the father of sequestration, too.

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