“Sequestration” and the fine art of obfuscation

Okay. I can’t be the only one who is annoyed with how the media is using “sequestration” to talk about the huge U.S. budget decisions that have been kicked down the road.

It’s all the buzz in the news media, and the latest shorthand for a huge quagmire of problems related to the government’s (mis)management of our tax dollars. But why the need for a single handle to talk about the situation?  I suppose it makes life easier for the news people, just as the “fiscal cliff” did just a few short weeks ago.  (Of course, Bernanke’s moniker was clear, strong, and, unlike “sequestration,” immediately understandable to all. A stroke of marketing genius, says my colleague, Paul Lombino. Read more in “The Beauty of Brevity”  on his site.  Thanks, Paul!)

My biggest beef:  the use of “sequestration” flies in the face of what the word really means.  Here’s what Dictionary.com (a.k.a. Merriam-Webster) has to say:




  1. The action of taking legal possession of assets until a debt has been paid or other claims have been met; 
  2. the action of taking forcible possession of something; confiscation.


I guess the “forcible” nature of what is to take place on March 1 is inarguable. But the idea that anyone is taking possession of anything  — or even being fully accountable for what’s happening — gets lost in the miasma of hyped up news coverage.

For a helpful description of how the Budget office currently uses the term, check out the recent column by Tom Murse on About.com.

According to Murse, the idea of imposing automatic spending cuts in the federal budget was first put in place nearly 30 years ago by the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.  But the media didn’t call it sequestration back then.

The fact that this is a government-manufactured term — designed to obfuscate and not communicate –is noted by Dr. Paul Johnson from the Department of Political Science at Auburn University.

According to Dr. Johnson (who is rather inclined to turgid prose) “…the term has been adapted by Congress in more recent years to describe a new fiscal policy procedure originally provided for in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 — an effort to reform Congressional voting procedures so as to make the size of the Federal governments’ budget deficit a matter of conscious choice rather than simply the arithmetical outcome of a decentralized appropriations process in which no one ever looked  at the cumulative results until it was too late to change them.”

Johnson goes on to suggest that sequestration has been relatively successful as a deterrent to avoiding the hard budget decisions. “The prospect of sequestration has thus come to seem so catastrophic that Congress so far has been unwilling actually to let it happen,” he says.

Whether sequestration truly is a deterrent this time around remains to be seen. (We’ll know better on March 1.)

In the meantime, why not just use “budget deadline”  or “payment due date, ” instead?  Those are certainly phrases that anyone who has ever tried to balance a checkbook or budget can understand.



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