The White House provided its first assessment of what would happen if Congress fails to act and allows about $100 billion worth of automatic budget cuts to take effect on Jan. 2.
In its estimation (pdf), the White House's Office Of Management and Budget says this so-called "sequestration" would have a "devastating impact" on government programs including defense.
Here's how Bloomberg summarizes the lengthy report issued today:
"The White House Office of Management and Budget said in the report to Congress today that it would have to chop $109 billion from government programs in fiscal 2013, split evenly with $54.7 billion coming from defense and $54.7 billion from programs outside defense, including an $11 billion reduction, or 2 percent, from Medicare.
Spending cuts would undermine economic investment, and 'cause severe harm' because of fewer food-safety inspections, less air traffic controllers, smaller classrooms and lead to less research in curing cancer or childhood diseases, the report said. It also would force the Pentagon to juggle accounts to maintain current war-fighting capabilities and delay repairing or buying new equipment."
Now, let's back up a little bit: This sequestration was passed into law as part of the debt ceiling compromise both parties agreed to in the summer of 2011. That deal called for a $1.1 trillion cut from federal spending during the next ten years and then called for a "super committee" made up of leaders from both parties to shave another $1.2 trillion off the budget. They failed, so the law mandates that $1.2 trillion be cut equally from domestic programs and the defense budget.
"As the administration has made clear, no amount of planning can mitigate the effect of these cuts," the report reads. "Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument. It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction."
Essentially, this is the same argument Congress has been grappling with for years: Democrats don't want to tackle the deficit using cuts alone and Republicans have refused any tax increases to offset some of those cuts.
The New York Times says that this report was ordered by Congress. What the White House produced was a line-by-line report detailing how far and wide the cuts would extend. The Times reports:
"Pointedly, the first items on the ledger are cuts to the legislative branch. Inquiries and investigations — a mainstay of the Republican House — would lose $11 million. Salaries and expenses in the House of Representatives would drop by $101 million. ...
"Politically, the pain would be spread to all parts of the spectrum. The National Institutes of Health would lose $2.5 billion. Rental assistance for the poor would fall by $2.3 billion; food stamps would lose $543 million.
"Republican domestic priorities would also take a hit. The Federal Bureau of Investigations would lose $735 million for salaries and expenses. The Customs and Border Patrol budget would fall by $823 million, and the budget for the border fence — virtual and physical — would drop $33 million."