Sequestering Success

Sequester

By Steven Brenner.

You might be enjoying your news cocktail of Carlos Danger, the royal baby, and Sharknado coverage right now, but do you remember that thing called sequestration? Well, neither do the people in charge. As I write this from my home a few miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, it seems that nobody here seems to remember that phrase.

A few months ago, at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Editor-In-Chief of The Daily Caller Tucker Carlson called sequestration “the Y2K of politics: it came, went, and no one noticed.” Sadly, Mr. Carlson’s political analysis is largely correct. Politicians and pundits in Washington have debated a wide variety of issues this summer, yet only a select few are focusing on one of the most pressing issues facing the United States today: sequestration’s devastating impact on the lives of many around the country.

This story begins in 2011, when the White House and Congressional Republicans reached an eleventh hour compromise to reduce federal spending and raise the debt ceiling with the passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA). The law established a special “Super Committee” to reduce federal spending by trillions of dollars. If it failed to do so, $1.2 trillion of across-the-board sequestration cuts would go into effect automatically. Commentators noted that the cuts were “severe” and poorly distributed. In fact, this was the intention. Sequestration was originally intended to deter Congress from its traditional pattern of inaction because there were aspects of it that were so unpalatable to each party (for Republicans, large defense cuts, and for Democrats, large cuts in discretionary spending) that it was thought that neither side would ever let go into effect. This compromise also allowed the 2012 election to occur before any budget cuts would be implemented.

After the passage of the BCA, the new “Super Committee” became an organizational and legislative nightmare and never successfully proposed any serious legislation. So, by the end of 2012, Congress faced a dire budgetary situation and brokered a short-term postponement of cuts in exchange for a tax increase on high-income earners. Even that bought time, however, was not enough. The new deadline passed without any action from the Super Committee, and sequestration went into full effect in March 2013.

Now that it has taken effect, sequestration requires deficit reduction over a 10-year period, cutting $85 billion from the federal balance sheet this year alone. Furthermore, the law gives departments little to no flexibility in how to make said cuts, forcing departments to cut workers when they could find savings elsewhere. We are a few months into a decade-long process, and the future already looks bleak for a multitude of programs integral to American success and prosperity.

As a result of sequestration, over 680,000 civilian employees have been furloughed due to a 13% reduction in military spending. Without the ability to cut the pay of deployed soldiers or make cuts in the department without furloughing employees, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that sequestration will ultimately create “a much smaller force that is well-compensated but poorly trained and equipped.”

The situation is even worse in areas of domestic discretionary spending. The early-education program Head Start will have to cut its nationwide enrollment by 70,000 children. Twenty states already plan to close their public defender offices because of a lack of federal assistance, and these states will have to contract out cases that require a public defender to private attorneys at a higher cost.

Sequestration even makes its way onto Duke’s campus because of mandatory cuts to federal research grant programs. According to The Chronicle, Duke’s Clinical Research department was forced to cut 56 jobs this past March due to a $20 million cut in federal funding of Duke Medicine, and future cuts to research in the natural sciences are on the horizon. In addition, students around the country will be seeing their financial aid dwindle since the sequester cuts federal grants.

It’s easy to just look at the numbers, but doing so misses the human reality. Consider Army reservist Jeff Marya, whose furlough has resulted in him taking a second job at Papa John’s to supplement his civilian job at Fort Meade.Consider the poor children in towns like Springfield, Massachusetts being turned away from the early education programs they need. These stories illustrate that sequestration is about far more than numbers on a federal balance sheet. We are cutting jobs of hard working American citizens who serve our country nobly and reducing opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens to have a chance at pulling themselves out of poverty.

It’s obvious that these reductions in federal spending are hurting our country and many of our citizens, but why is no one in the media talking about this? Of course, federal budget cuts aren’t as attractive to viewers or readers as sensational stories such as Anthony Weiner or Bob Filner. Yet the media has recently given significant coverage to policy issues such as immigration reform or the recent Supreme Court decisions. So why do stories about sequestration not appear alongside these stories?

The reason for the lack of coverage lies in a harsh rebranding campaign. At the end of 2012, these cuts were part of the “fiscal cliff” scenario, and the media and politicians on both sides of the aisle correctly insinuated that the United States was facing deep budgetary problems. However, after Congress “kicked the can down the road” on the cuts, the situation was rebranded as something that sounds a great deal less threatening. Quietly, the “fiscal cliff” became “sequestration.”

It may not seem like it, but this rebranding was a key victory for the Congressional Republicans who support these cuts or, at least in theory, support cutting federal spending. The word “sequestration” is intentionally arcane and makes the cuts seem passable and even tolerable. They seem like just collateral damage in the course of the federal budget process. Republicans like this story, for across the board cuts in discretionary spending aren’t just the cost of doing business to Republicans—they are a campaign promise. Republicans succeed in keeping their base happy with sequestration and wiping the floor with Democrats while doing it.

Beyond the short-term victory, there is an even greater political advantage for Republicans in allowing sequestration to continue. Sequestration succeeds in making government do a worse job. If we reduce funding for federal programs, they will undoubtedly become less effective, and a less effective government in certain areas further re-enforces the conservative argument that government is incompetent. Government wasn’t perfect before sequestration. But sequestration takes the Republican proposition that government may underperform and makes it a virtual certainty.

At its absolute best, sequestration is an imperfect attempt to cut the size of a government that is unsustainably big. But this characterization ignores the initiative’s initial purpose. This law only concerns discretionary spending. Any person who is serious about reducing the size of the federal government knows that the path to doing so is reforming entitlements, long-term commitments that the government has made to provide certain services to its citizens. Sequestration does not force cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which pose the biggest threat to our nation’s fiscal health. Instead, we are taking budgets that are constantly in-flux and demanding nonsensical cuts. Instead of dealing with the nation’s deep-rooted fiscal problems, we’re furloughing federal employees and cutting Head Start programs for poor children.

And while government does less for the underprivileged and employs fewer people, it isn’t really any ‘smaller’ than before sequestration took effect. Republicans like to equate small government and economic prosperity, making the argument that the economy is healthier when the government regulates less, for in doing so it “gets out of the way” of people’s ability to best plan for their own prosperity. This argument has merit in many different ways (such is the concern of a different article). However, the sequester accomplishes none of these goals. We aren’t creating jobs by furloughing people. We aren’t freeing up the will of the free market by cutting research grants. And we certainly aren’t getting government off of people’s backs by cutting Head Start. We could have significant regulatory reform to create new economic growth, and we should have that discussion. In this case, however, the sequester is a solution to the wrong problem.

Above all else though, the underlying stupidity of the sequester lies in how we could achieve significant deficit reduction if we were actually serious about making the necessary sacrifices to solve this nation’s budgetary woes. For example, Medicare is not currently allowed to negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription drug costs, even though the Department of Veterans Affairs already does so. Giving Medicare that ability could save the U.S. as much as $600 billion over the next 10 years, half of sequestration savings alone. Consider enacting other targeted reforms to entitlements, including chained CPI and a small means-testing of Medicare benefits, and we’re well on our way to getting the amount of savings that the sequester offers and more without even raising taxes. Reducing the federal debt is an economic imperative, and it would do a lot of good for the country. But the sequester does so by slashing discretionary spending, the notably-smaller source of the problem that also causes a great deal more harm to cut. but unfortunately, sequestration is not enough to do so alone. If we want to get serious about reducing debt, we have to put entitlements on the table. If that ever happens, getting rid of the sequester should also be part of that discussion. At their core, these cuts are simply unproductive and, frankly, ridiculous.

As the media focuses on other things right now, Congress is preparing for a budget fight after the August recess—one that is sure to settle these issues to some degree. In the meantime, however, our government has failed too many Americans. Whether it’s Duke students aiming to discover the cure to a disease, underprivileged preschoolers in need of some glimmer of opportunity, or an Army veteran driving a Papa John’s route, the government has abandoned too many of its citizens over these last few months. I’m ashamed that they have done so little. I’m ashamed that they have cared so little. But as I think about what I will see on C-SPAN in the coming months, I’m more scared than anything. I’m scared that those 70,000 Head Start cuts will lead to kids losing a chance at a good education. I’m scared that public defender cuts will lead to the execution of an innocent person who did not have competent legal counsel. And more than anything, I’m scared that this might just be the beginning of the end of so many vital federal programs that create opportunity for so many Americans in dire need of their chance at success.




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  1. joseph

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