Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

The Real Problem With Sequestration


Happy Sequestration Day, everybody!

What was once unthinkable has now taken on an air (maybe stench is a more appropriate word) of inevitability. And here's what people will be talking about: whether President Obama overplayed his hand politically, the extent to which cuts actually will be felt by Americans and (a distant third) the impact this will have on federal employees facing furloughs.

But here's what won't be talked about much at all: The overall effect of implementing a sequester on the operations of government. Because that's rarely, if ever, part of the conversation.

So let's try to at least start the discussion. It begins with acknowledging the dirty little secret: Can government absorb $85 billion in  cuts without widespread ill effects on people other than agencies' own employees? Probably. It wouldn't be easy, or painless, but a genuine  exercise in identifying areas to cut or put off new spending could identify savings. Better yet, political leaders could sit down and have a serious conversation about what programs we simply must live without until our fiscal house is in order.

That, of course, is not what's going to happen. Instead, the Obama administration and Congress will dump an order for sweeping cuts on agencies, with vague instructions about how to implement it. This will set in motion a truly ridiculous process. Starting whenever President Obama issues his formal sequestration order, federal managers will commence spending large amounts of their time figuring out  how to execute it. They'll have to negotiate with labor unions over every aspect of employee furloughs. They'll have to go through the process of figuring out what an across-the-board cut in "programs, projects and activities" actually means -- since it's never been tried on this kind of scale before. Meanwhile, they'll have to address uncertainty in the workforce -- including the management ranks -- on a massive scale.

Let's be clear: None of this will add value for taxpayers. It will just be a long, complicated exercise in making the best of an absurd situation. That's true whether or not you think government can afford to take an $85 billion hit this year.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office released its high-risk list of federal programs. As usual, while a few items got dropped from the list (with almost no fanfare), new problems, such as dealing with the effects of climate change, got added. Can agencies expect to address them while absorbing across the board cuts? Not really. 

However the exercise of implementing a sequester plays out, it's almost guaranteed to result in the kind of vicious cycle that is all too common in Washington. As projects get put on hold and others fall behind schedule, agencies will open themselves up for criticism from their overseers on Capitol Hill that they're not getting the job done in an efficient and effective manner.

I know it's cynical to say so, but it's hard not to view this as an absurd win-win for lawmakers: They get to create the circumstances under which it is very difficult for agencies to succeed, then hold hearings to spout righteous indignation when they fail. 

The real losers in this scenario aren't just the federal employees and managers who try to run the programs. It's the Americans who pay for them. 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.