Well isn't this familiar. Once again, our feckless politicians have pushed the nation to the brink over a problem that they created but can't solve. Pick your cliché: We're about to go over a cliff. The sky is falling. The ax will drop. And guess what? An even bigger crisis — a possible government shutdown — awaits at the end of March. In Washington, the good times just keep on coming.
I'm guessing that by now you know what the sequester is. If not: The federal government is about to begin cutting $1.2 trillion in spending, divided among defense and domestic programs. That sounds like a lot, but it's spread over a decade. It amounts to about two pennies on the dollar.
There are a few good things to say about the sequester, but there seem to be more bad ones. On the plus side: Spending cuts might prevent another downgrade of the federal government's long-term credit rating. Major rating agencies like S&P and Moody's have warned of another ratings cut, which would further tarnish America's financial reputation. Also: Cutting two cents out of every dollar is, sequester advocates say, hardly disastrous. The federal government is bloated and redundant. A few quick examples to illustrate this point:
* There are 15 agencies overseeing food-safety laws
* There are more than 20 different programs to help the homeless
* There are 44 overlapping employment and job training programs
These findings were part of a 345-page report in 2011 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that identified "81 areas for consolidation" among overlapping agencies and programs. The report says "reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap or fragmentation" could potentially save "tens of billions of dollars" annually and help agencies provide "more efficient and effective services."
Most people don't really oppose taking an ax to this Beltway bloat. And if it means some federal workers get the heave-ho, so be it.
On the negative side, the spending cuts are meant to reduce the federal deficit. Yet an economic slowdown, which all sides agree would certainly occur in the aftermath of the sequester, would cost the government tax revenue and might actually widen the very deficit the sequester is meant to address. The deficit is already falling anyway — it's now at 7 percent of the economy, down from 10 percent three years ago. As the conservative Investors Business Daily notes, it's the biggest drop in the deficit since the late 1940s.
It's also important to note that the sequester excludes the biggest driver of federal spending: entitlements. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — considered "mandatory" — gobbled up 57 cents of every dollar the government spent in 2012, and that percentage is projected to keep rising as 76 million baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) retire. So with entitlements safe from the budgetary ax, the entire sacrifice will be restricted to the 43 percent of spending that is considered "non-mandatory." It seems to me that if the fattest guy at the table is allowed to keep eating as much pie as he wants, he'll never lose weight.
And it's the indiscriminate nature of cuts to that 43 percent of the federal budget that has many people upset. Everything will be cut, the administration warns. Fewer vaccines for kids. Millions of fewer meals for needy elderly citizens. Tens of thousands of homeless people will be kicked out of shelters. Fewer food inspectors and air traffic controllers. On and on and on. These are the things the White House has seized on with its "Scarequester" PR campaign.
Meanwhile, you'd think that Republicans, who like to position themselves as the national security party (a rather dubious characterization, given huge defense cuts made by Eisenhower in the '50s, Nixon in the '70s, Reagan in his second term, and Bush Sr. in the early '90s), would squawk about the one-half of the sequester that's aimed at defense. Yet they really haven't. The GOP seems to believe that President Obama will get the ultimate blame for any long-term economic damage caused by these cuts. This is why Republicans are hanging tough and resisting Obama's calls for a "balanced approach" to reducing the deficit. They also argue that the president already got the revenues he wanted on New Year's, when the GOP caved and agreed to raise taxes on top earners. The Republican message for the White House: That's all you get.
But Republicans appear tone deaf to broader public opinion. A USA Today/Pew Research Center survey last week showed most Americans are closer to Obama's view that the GOP has to compromise more. "Even a majority of Republican voters endorse Obama's approach of seeking tax hikes as well as spending cuts," the poll revealed.
Who will Americans blame if the budget ax falls? Half say Republicans will be at fault; less than a third will point the finger at Obama. This is why the White House is also hanging tough. And this is why the ax is dropping.