What Does 'Sequester' Mean (in Politics)?

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What does a verb meaning to remove or separate have to do with budget cuts?

The term dates back to the Reagan era, according to Marketplace. The economy was booming, but both parties were worried about the deficit. In 1985 Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, which requires Congress and the President to come to terms on how to meet goals for deficit reduction. If they don’t, the money gets set aside.

Retired Senator Phil Gramm from Texas (R) coined the actual term.

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“To me, sequester conjured up taking something off the table, withholding something,” he told Marketplace. The first idea for a term, “impoundment,” was already in use.

Originally, the word comes from the late Latin word “sequestrare,” meaning “to place in safekeeping.”

In this year’s context, the sequester refers to the across-the-board, automatic spending cuts triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Because all programs are affected, it’s meant to pressure legislators into making a deal to avoid it, explains the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

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Perhaps the only thing crystal clear about the sequester, though, is that everybody hates it. Here’s what President Obama had to say about it this week:

“So these cuts are wrong. They’re not smart. They’re not fair. They’re a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen…what the sequester does is it uses a meat cleaver approach to gut critical investments in things like education and national security and lifesaving medical research.”

Photo: Corbis

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