Official Washington is so concerned about the coming sequester that it headed off on vacation.
For the record, all sides bear responsibility for this self-destructive turn of events. What President Obama now calls a “really bad idea” was generated by his own economic policy team. What Speaker John Boehner now refers to as a “meat ax” passed the House at his urging with 174 Republican votes. All involved would protest that across-the-board cuts were intended only as the unthinkable alternative to a rational plan approved by the so-called supercommittee. “The sequester is ugly,” explained Boehner at the time, “Why? Because we don’t want anybody to go there. That’s why we have to succeed.”
But no one loses money betting against the success of the federal government on budget issues. And many in American politics are now trying to find the sequester’s inner beauty, which brings to mind the country music classic: “She’s looking better every beer.”
Some Democrats see disproportionate defense reductions as a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity. “You are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut,” salivates Howard Dean. For others, it is an opportunity to apply blame to Republicans as airport-screening lines lengthen and meat-quality inspectors are furloughed.
Democratic proposals to avoid the sequester are consistent with an aggressive blame-shifting strategy. Replacing a measure that currently consists of 100 percent budget cuts with one that includes 50 percent revenue increases would probably secure zero Republican votes in the Senate. If Boehner were even to publicly consider this approach, he would likely lose his speakership. The Democratic alternative is designed to be unacceptable to nearly every Republican, making it not a plan but a ploy.
On the Republican side, a few of the libertarian/isolationist persuasion are perfectly content with broad budget cuts that also unravel military preparedness. Many more in the GOP are resigned to sequestration as the least bad of the options they have been given. These Republicans have, of course, their own alternative: Replace immediate, indiscriminate cuts with gradual, long-term reductions in entitlement spending. But enacting it would require presidential leadership involving political risk, which is not expected.
Republicans comfort themselves that a 5.1 percent reduction in domestic spending is not as dramatic as a government shutdown — more of a haircut than a scalping. But it is probably not wise to trust in the restraint and sense of historical proportion of the media in covering the resulting dislocations. And not all the pain will be minor.
So Washington has maneuvered itself into a position where doing nothing makes political sense for everyone, at least for the moment. But when all these politically rational decisions are added up, they still amount to an absurd, discrediting way to run a government.
Across-the-board cuts are an ethical abdication. Consider one of many possible case studies: The AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which provides domestic, need-based treatment. Funding for this program is devoted to drugs — and since in many states benefits are provided through Medicaid, administrative costs are low. But because ADAP is not technically a poverty program, it will be subject to the sequester. Nearly 10,000 Americans will lose access to drugs that would otherwise have been provided. Few individual politicians would choose this program for cuts. But by surrendering their power of choice, they have chosen it anyway. A retreat from governing is not a release from responsibility.
The sequester also manages to be an economic distraction. Once again, it fails to address the ballooning costs of entitlement programs while making all other categories of spending pay the price. While imposing a 5.1 percent cut in domestic discretionary programs and a 7.3 percent cut in defense discretionary programs, the sequester involves a 2 percent reduction in Medicare provider payments. Yet health entitlements — Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare — will account for all of the projected explosion in federal spending in coming decades (since all other spending combined is projected to decline as a share of the economy). The sequester obscures and avoids the true sources of long-term debt.
The American political system is not designed for efficiency. But it presupposes deliberation and leadership. The serial abdication of both eventually has an economic and human cost.