But analysts have a good idea of where the cuts - aimed at reducing annual budget deficits of more than $1 trillion - would fall and it is not a pretty picture.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, nearly every domestic program would face the equivalent of a 12% spending cut next year. So, for example, grants to help states provide safe drinking water and low-income housing would suffer.
About 700,000 young children and pregnant or nursing mothers would lose nutrition assistance, 25,000 teachers and school aides would be laid off and 100,000 kids would not enter Head Start pre-school programs. The National Institutes of Health would issue about 700 fewer grants to medical researchers, the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated.
Shielded from the “sequestration” are veterans benefits, Social Security retirement checks, Medicare health benefits to the elderly and transportation programs, which are funded through a highway trust fund. Payments to doctors and others treating Medicare patients would see a 2% cut, though.
Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that government supports for farmers would suffer, as would federal aid for student loans - just months after Congress, at Obama’s urging, acted to keep loan rates low for another year.
“In terms of the economy - $100 billion (worth of cuts) in a $16 trillion economy is big enough to notice. It could make a difference by itself of a tenth or two tenths (of a percent) in real GDP growth over the course of a year if it stayed in place,” Kogan said. Even if it ultimately is overturned by Congress, there could be a lingering psychological effect, he added.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in May estimated that if the automatic spending cuts are allowed to remain in place and if former President George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are allowed to expire on Dec. 31, as scheduled, the U.S. economy could be pushed into recession early next year.
In the midst of Congress’ heated debate last year over deficit reduction, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly warned that doing too much too fast could hamper the economic turnaround.
A new study, which was funded by the U.S. aerospace industry, by George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller argued that the January spending cuts, if triggered in January, would increase U.S. joblessness by as much as 1.5% points with more than 2 million jobs lost in 2013.
Many of those job losses, he said, would be centered in states like Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania, which could be crucial to Obama’s re-election prospects.