The continuing resolution (CR) which was recently approved by Congress provides a framework for how the sequester may eventually be dealt with. The chances that there will be a big repeal bill or a grand bargain appear to be growing less likely. Instead, it seems the level of the sequester cuts will be mostly left in place but Congress will steadily make changes to the design of the cuts to make them less stupid as problems emerge.

The process already started with the CR. In the bill Congress fixed several of the most technically problematic and politically unpopular aspects of the sequester’s across the board design. The size of the cuts remained mostly unchanged but money was shifted around and some agencies were given more flexibility in how they applied the cuts. For example, an amendment was adopted in the Senate that would prevent the furloughs of meat inspectors that would needlessly shut down entire plants. Similarly, money was shift to make sure the military’s tuition assistance program remained properly funded.

On an individual level, all these small changes make sense but the cumulative effect is that they take much of the sting out of the sequester. This could eventually create a new dynamic.

The more the sequester is handled in a piecemeal fashion, the less urgent it becomes to find a complete solution. It starts making more sense for individual legislators to push for narrow fixes to particular sequester-related problems than to try joining a push for a sweeping solution for the whole thing. As we just saw in the CR, these small fixes are hard to oppose. As a result, the sequester slowly becomes more tolerable, and that saps energy from efforts to find a big replacement.

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