Why the big, dumb spending cuts that no one wants might actually happen

September 14, 2012

If you want a perfect illustration of the dysfunction afflicting Washington today, you don't have to look any further than the "sequester."

But let's not call it the "sequester." That's a name chosen because no one understands what it means, which is helpful for Congress, which doesn't want anyone to understand the awful thing they've done. Let's call it what it is: The big, dumb spending cuts that no one wants.


Washington in one photograph. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The basic story is that back in August 2011, the United States almost defaulted on its debts. The reason the richest and most powerful country the world has ever known almost became a deadbeat is that congressional Republicans refused to cleanly raise the debt ceiling, as congresses controlled by Republicans and Democrats had done some 70 times before, and they refused to pass a compromise debt-reduction plan that contained about a trillion dollars in new taxes for more than twice as much in spending cuts. In fact, Speaker John Boehner simply stopped returning the president's calls during the negotiations.

But something had to be done so the United States didn't default on its debts and spark a global financial crisis. So Congress decided something would be done. But not by them. Or, at least, not by most of them. They created the Joint Special Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as "the supercommittee." The idea was that this 12-member, bipartisan committee, made up of members of Congress, would do what the larger Congress couldn't and agree on a deficit-reduction package.

But Republicans wanted a guarantee. The initial idea was that if the supercommittee failed, there would be automatic spending cuts and automatic tax increases. This way, both parties would have an incentive to reach a deal. But Republicans refused the tax increases side. So instead, the two sides settled on automatic spending cuts to domestic programs to hurt Democrats and automatic spending cuts to defense to hurt Republicans. And thus the big, dumb spending cuts that no one wants came into being.

As you probably remember, the supercommittee failed. And thus the big, dumb spending cuts that no one wants became a real possibility. And there hasn't been any other deficit-reduction deal, because Republicans still won't agree to a deficit-reduction deal with taxes and Democrats won't agree to one without taxes. And so the sequester is becoming more and more inevitable.

You might wonder why Republicans and Democrats, both of whom agree we should cut spending, are so dead-set against these particular spending cuts. The answer is that they are very, very dumb. A certain number of programs — Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare beneficiaries and nearly all spending directly benefiting low-income Americans — are exempt, but beyond that, everything gets pretty much the same size cut.

As a senior administration official said on a conference call today: "The administration has no discretion in deciding the cuts identified in this report. The exempt versus non-exempt determinations are based on the requirements in the law. The administration can't choose which programs to exempt or what percentage cuts to apply." You can see exactly where those cuts would fall here.

In other words: Spending we consider essential gets the same size cut as spending we consider wasteful. There's no ability to make the cuts to farm subsidies a bit bigger and the cuts to, say, the FBI a bit smaller. It's $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction in which we pretty much don't make a single choice about what is and isn't worth funding.

Let's be very clear here: The only thing Congress would need to do to prevent these big, dumb cuts that no one wants would be to agree on an equivalently sized deficit reduction package that they prefer. But thus far, that hasn't happened.

Related reading:

- Suzy Khimm's sequester FAQ.

- The sequester in one graph.

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Sarah Kliff · September 14, 2012