Payback time for Washington as deep budget cuts loom

Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 25, 2013

“Boo-hoo for the DC suburbs,” one reader snarked.

“DC area = Crybabies,” another postulated.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“Good. It’s about time,” someone else exulted.

The fact that the deep budget cuts known as the sequester will hit the Washington region particularly hard has the rest of the nation reveling in schadenfreude.

And, in truth, it’s not hard to see why.

Local impact of sequestration

The only thing more prominent than the Washington Monument on the D.C. skyline are the towering cranes building even more fancy condos.

A bunch of new restaurants open every week — places with $15 drinks and $19 appetizers — and they’re packed every night. A new chain of salons just opened that does nothing but blow dry your hair, for $40 a head. A Google search for “doggie day care, Washington D.C.” gives you as many results as a search for “day care, Washington, D.C.”

It’s even more plush in places such as Bethesda, Great Falls and Tysons, which Spanx recently targeted as the best spot in the country to open its first store selling $56 underpants to make women with fat wallets and midriffs look two pounds slimmer.

If panty pricing doesn’t impress you, take a look at the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent ranking of counties according to where the highest earners live.

The top three are all in Northern Virginia: the city of Falls Church and Loudoun and Fairfax counties. With the exception of a few Manhattan and Northern California suburbs, the rest of the top tier is all around the Beltway.

Seven of the top 15 counties are suburbs of Washington, where the federal government and its army of contractors have been on a gargantuan spending binge ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

No wonder folks across the country, still struggling to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression, are pumped that our region may have to cut back a bit. I mean, there’s a lot to cut.

An online reader known as “grunk” joked in the comments section of one sequester story about the sacrifices D.C. might be facing: “The Beltway will only go one direction. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will become 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue. RG3 to RG2. The Pentagon will be reduced to just four sides.”

The rest of the country has had it with the nation’s capital.

Last month, for the first time since the 1990s, Americans told the Gallup pollsters that the way Washington operates is the biggest problem facing the country. Usually, they say the economy or unemployment are their biggest worries. But last month, the rest of America pointed the finger right here, a couple of blocks away from the blow-drying salon, not far from that new oyster place.

“These results suggest that average Americans are generally shifting their focus — from worry about macroeconomic problems to worry about issues associated with the way government works,” wrote Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. Or doesn’t work.

The truth is, the country sees Washington as a place filled with pompous politicians and self-important bureaucrats, said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

“The company man has always been unpopular,” Sabato said. “And Washington is a town full of company men.”

And sticking it to them feels pretty good. No one wants to hear us complain about a rough road when it comes to budget cuts.

“A ‘rough road’ in D.C. isn’t like a rough road in places like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo or a thousand other towns and cities across the country,” online reader slim21 wrote. “Judging by traffic and real estate valuations alone makes it obvious the metro region is far out of step with the rest of the country economically and a little trip to the fat farm is not unreasonable.”

Skeptic1 promised to be “getting out the popcorn and praying to Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed for the sequester to occur” in order to watch the misery in Washington.

But here’s the problem. It’s not the affluent who will suffer when the ax falls. It’s poor kids, the elderly and the sick. And they won’t just suffer in the DMV.

The White House estimates that 27,000 school children in the District, Maryland and Virginia would be affected by education funding cuts. But it would affect 172,000 kids in Texas and 178,000 in California.

Nutrition assistance for seniors in the District, Maryland and Virginia would plummet by $2.3 million, the White House warned. But it would plunge by $3.8 million in Florida and $1.8 million in Michigan.

It may be satisfying to some to watch Washington squirm. But these cuts are going hurt every state, city and town in America. We need to care more about people than payback.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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