In August of 2011, the White House and Congress, faced with blundering into a default on U.S. debt, agreed to a budget deal that was, by design, so bad that the lawmakers believed they would never have to live up to it.
Instead, a bipartisan "supercommittee" would supersede the terms of the Budget Control Act by coming up with a long-term deficit reduction plan that both parties could agree on and the White House live with.
If the supercommittee failed -- as it did -- the federal budget for this year would be required to take an across-the-board cut of around $85 billion. The cuts would continue for 10 years, until $1.2 trillion had been gouged from federal spending.
The cuts, known as a sequester, were supposed to take effect Jan. 1, the dread "fiscal cliff" of recent memory, but at the last minute Congress postponed the moment of reckoning until March 1.
Here it is, the first week in February, and Congress seems to be sleepwalking toward that deadline. The timeframe is even tighter than it seems because the GOP-run House plans to work only 11 days this month.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appeared to up the ante over the weekend when he said Democrats would demand additional revenues -- either through tax hikes or loophole closings -- as the price of averting the mandatory cuts. The Republicans felt they did their share last month by agreeing to let taxes rise on some upper-income earners. Now, they want to see spending cuts in return.
Some House Republicans now favor letting the sequester take place temporarily to shock Congress into taking federal spending seriously.
Economic analysts disagree about the specific effects of a sequester, but they agree the total effect would be bad. The Associated Press summed up the prevailing view that the deadlock "has the potential to slam the economy, produce sweeping furloughs and layoffs at federal agencies and threaten hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs." The Pentagon would bear the brunt of the cuts -- about $43 billion this year, an amount that senior officers say would hollow out the military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said if Congress allowed the cuts to go through, it would be "a shameful, irresponsible act."
March 1 isn't that far off and Congress isn't above giving itself another postponement. But the weary American public, including people whose jobs are at stake, generally would appreciate it if Congress showed some sense of urgency about the problem.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.