Q: Will it harm the economy?
A: Yes. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost 750,000 jobs and lower economic growth by 0.6 percent. That's because the cuts drain demand from the economy and affect companies that do business with the government.
Q: How big are the cuts? Huge numbers?
A: Over a decade, the cuts total about $1 trillion, half from defense and half from domestic programs. There's an additional $200 billion or so in lower government interest payments. For this budget year, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cuts are $42.7 billion from defense (8 percent) and $42.7 billion from domestic programs (5 percent). Because the cuts are backloaded into the last seven months of the budget year, they feel more like a 13 percent cut to the Pentagon and 9 percent cut to domestic agencies during that period. And these are real cuts from agency budgets that have been essentially frozen at last year's levels.
Q: Aren't a lot of programs exempt?
A: Yes. The majority of the federal budget is in fact walled off from the cuts. Social Security and veterans' programs are exempt, and cuts to Medicare are generally limited to a 2 percent, $10 billion reduction in payments to hospitals and doctors. Most programs that help the poor, like Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized school lunches, Pell Grants and supplemental security income payments are also exempt.
Q: How much discretion do the agency heads have on what to cut, and when?
A: Not much. The cuts are supposed to apply equally to every "program, project and activity." That means, for instance, that the Agriculture Department can't take money designated for Boll Weevil research and use it to pay meat inspectors. Some lawmakers want to give agency heads greater flexibility to shift money around, but the administration says that would be of only limited help. The White House has told agencies to avoid cuts presenting "risks to life, safety or health" and to minimize harm to crucial services.
Q: OK, say it's now March 2, and the sequester has gone into effect. Is there any way to undo or limit it before much of its effect is felt?
A: Sure, but it'll take an act of Congress and Obama's signature. So the best chance for averting the sequester's major consequences might be to let it take effect and see if there's a widespread backlash from business and the public that somehow provokes lawmakers and Obama to compromise. That's hardly guaranteed. One legislative option would be to turn to a separate effort to prevent a government shutdown on March 27 and use that bill to address the sequester or to give agencies flexibility in mitigating its effects.