Because there appears to be no serious effort to stop it before it starts, we have to think about the actual mechanics of the sequester. First question: What time does the sequester actually start? President Obama must sign an order starting the sequester by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 1. Sources close to my imagination say Obama will commence the cuts by pulling a ceremonial train whistle that will rattle windows across Washington, D.C.
And now for the essay portion of our quiz: What time does the sequester end? Both the White House and Congress believe the other party will blink first. We don't know for sure how this sequester will play out, but we do have some past sequesters to judge by. If 2013 follows the 1990 example, then it won't last long. As the Bipartisan Policy Center explains, Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 set deficit reduction targets. The Office of Management and Budget would issue a "sequestration report" projecting whether that target would be hit. If Congress wasn't on target, it would have a a short amount of time to either pass deficit reduction measures or face automatic cuts. Spoiler: Congress didn't hit the target unless they were relaxed. And the cuts only happened once. That was in fiscal year 1986, which was already under way when Congress passed the law. In 1987, sequestration was stopped despite the missed target. Sequestration was rescinded in 1988. The deficit target was relaxed for fiscal year 1989. In fiscal year 1990, even the relaxed target looked impossible to hit, so Congress passed other deficit cutting measures.
Fiscal year 1991 was the end. The economy had slowed. The OMB's sequestration report on August 20, 1990 warned that the deficit would be $165.2 billion. Since the target was $64 billion, the sequester would have caused 41.8 percent cuts to defense and 38 percent cuts to non-defense programs. On September 7, budget negotiators met at Andrews Air Force Base. By September 30, there was a deal that cut the deficit by $500 billion over five years. It did this with $134 billion in taxes and cuts to Medicare.
The time in between? Not much will happen, as Slate's Matt Yglesias explains. Federal agencies have known this was coming for a long time, and have planned accordingly. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus explained way back in 2011, "We are going to be watching this bullet travel for a year." If it makes it that long.