Sequestration is a budget cut to most programs, projects, and activities across the federal government by uniform percentages. On March 1, 2013, the President ordered sequestration, and agencies face the prospect of further sequestrations through 2024.
The 2013 sequestration was the first in more than two decades. It required federal agencies to reduce discretionary appropriations and direct spending (also referred to as mandatory spending) by $80.5 billion. This had a wide range of effects on federal agency operations and on services to the public.
Infographic: Overview of Sequestration Implementation and Effects
How Did Sequestration Affect Agency Operations and Services to the Public?
GAO examined how 23 large federal agencies planned for and later implemented sequestration and the effects of the reduced spending. These agencies represented roughly $78 billion of the sequestered funds in fiscal year 2013, spread across more than 7,800 individual programs, projects, and activities. These effects were in three main areas:
- Reduction in Services: For example, agencies reported that sequestration reduced assistance for education, housing, and nutrition, as well as health and science research and development grants. Some federal services also experienced backlogs and delays in service delivery as a result of personnel actions, including limiting hiring and furloughing employees.
- Delays in Investments: Agencies reported delaying investments such as information technology and facilities projects.
- Effects on the Federal Work Force: More than 770,000 federal employees were furloughed between 1 and 7 days. Agencies also canceled or limited monetary awards, reduced employee travel and training, and curtailed hiring. Agency officials expected these and other actions to have a negative effect on employee morale and possible longer-term implications for federal retention and recruitment.
What Actions did Agencies Take to Mitigate the Effects of Sequestration and Implement Reductions?
Most agencies reported using funding flexibilities to balance protecting their mission with need to achieve the required sequestration reductions. Some of these flexibilities may be more limited in future years. Flexibilities included:
- Transferring or Reprogramming funds to higher priority activities
- Using prior year unobligated balances to offset reductions
Funding increases enacted by Congress after sequestration in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 also helped mitigate sequestrations effects for some selected programs.
Agencies took a broad range of personnel and non-personnel actions to implement the reductions required by sequestration.
- Personnel actions to achieve reductions
- Non-personnel actions to achieve reductions
- Furloughed federal employees as a result of sequestration
Table 1 provides an overview of each agency's sequestered funds. For additional information on how agencies planned for and implemented sequestration and its effects, click on the agency’s name.
Table 1: Sequestered Funds, Budget Accounts, and Programs, Projects, and Activities by Agency, Fiscal Year 2013
Source: GAO analysis of agency data.
Note: This table is excerpted from GAO-14-244. For more details, see the report.