Sequester not an imaginary concept

It’s easy to think that the sequester is largely fictional, that it’s a bookkeeping entry, that it’s a rounding error, because, as Charles Krauthammer has noted, the $85 trillion billion in cuts forced by the sequester represents just 2.2 percent of the federal budget. Krauthammer says the president is being a fearmonger, that he’s warning that, for example, our meat inspectors will be sidelined and tonight’s dinner will turn out to be Mad Cow Bourguignon. The right generally rejoices in a smaller federal government, while acknowledging the chain-saw indelicacy of sequestration. But today we read in the Metro section of non-profits in DC that are facing budget cuts of 5 to 8 percent in the coming months, and pondering whether they’ll have to lay off staff or reduce services. These aren’t giant aerospace corporations that are taking a hit: They’re small-scale, close-to-the-street operations that use federal grants to provide services to at-risk kids, the elderly, the poor.

One example is the non-profit headed by my good friend and neighbor John Menditto: East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. ECMHSP provides services to 2,634 children of migrant and seasonal farm workers from Florida to New York state [that's just in the coming five months; last year the group served 4,016 children]. John writes:

“The sequester means that we have to reduce expenditures by 5.1 percent, but we only have four months to implement the cuts.  Given that a proportion of the budget funds fixed costs that can’t be reduced, we will be forced to share the pain of the cuts across all our non-fixed costs of operations, including program services.  What does this mean?  On Day One of the Sequester I can’t say for sure.  It may mean closing Head Start centers early in Florida, and delaying the opening of Head Start centers in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and points north as migrant farmworkers travel for the purpose of planting and harvesting America’s fruits and vegetables.  What does this mean?  It may mean that infants, toddlers and preschoolers are brought to the fields while their parents work, or that these young children are left behind in migrant labor camps under the care of older siblings or a mom or grandmother.  We will, of course, do everything possible to avoid such dire results, but on Day One of the Sequester it is not clear how that is possible.  I need a plexi-glass window on the steps of the Capitol where I can mark each day’s passing like the heroine in Zero Dark Thirty.”

(Watch the ECMHSP video “God Made a Farmworker,” paid for with volunteer funds fyi, that reminds us that the tomatoes and oranges and strawberries do not magically transport themselves to Safeway and Whole Foods, and which culminates in a Farmworkers Bill of Rights that includes such rights as “Not be fired when we are sick” and “Be paid for all the hours we work” and so on.)

It’s possible that some people have an ideological objection to the idea that the federal government  should help educate and provide health care to the children (who are American citizens, by the way) of migrant workers, though I’d suggest that in the category of investment for our future it’s a good idea to put little kids in preschool rather than in the turnip patch.

What sequestration has in common with the fiscal cliff is that in both cases there was an opportunity for a deal, something big, perhaps even a Grand Bargain. But that’s not going to happen. One obvious reason is that the Republicans at this point cannot abide a single new dollar in revenue. Meanwhile we still have, after all this time, zero progress in coming up with a long-term plan for reforming Social Security and Medicare to ensure that they remain stable and don’t end up eating the rest of the government’s lunch.

With taxes low and entitlement spending unreformed, the discretionary part of the budget is already contracting as a percentage of GDP, and it’s going to continue to contract. As I’ve been saying. The guy whose policies have ensured this trend is a certain Barack Obama. Here’s Jeff Sachs: “To stake out his low-tax position, he has repeatedly proposed budgets that actually slash the share of discretionary spending in national income. People have rarely recognized the contradiction between Obama’s progressive speeches and his regressive budgets.”

Here’s Howard Kurtz: “The new normal is government by exhaustion. Having lost the ability to make deals, the two parties now settle for whatever dumb, illogical, short-sighted arrangement doesn’t require them to do anything. There’s nothing left in the tank. The two sides can barely rouse themselves to deliver their tired talking points, which everyone is sick of.”

More from around the Web:

Good line in the Chuck Todd et al “First Thoughts” column this morning: “.. what Romney said about his infamous ’47%’ comment: ‘What I said is not what I believe.’ Folks, that one sentence sums up Romney’s two failed presidential bids.”

In case you missed it, here’s Patrick Pexton’s final column as our ombudsman.

I read all the jokes this weekend in the Style Invitational 20-year retrospective. Great stuff, and once again I’m awed that the Invite has achieved this milestone. This is the original crowdsourcing, invented before anyone used the term. This was reader “engagement” before it became a buzzword in newsrooms. I recommend getting hold of the 20th anniversary package in the Sunday Style print copy and passing it around to people you know (yeah, it’s all online, too, but I find it easier to navigate in print).

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | March 1, 2013