The Post reports that the odds are increasing — perhaps to the point of near certainty — that the so-called “sequester” will take effect March 1. This would be a pity. For non-budget wonks, the sequester mandates about $1 trillion in government spending cuts over nine years, divided between defense and non-defense programs. These would be the wrong cuts, done in the wrong way. There’s a better approach.
First, some background. The sequester was never intended to take effect. It was designed as a sledgehammer to force congressional leaders to negotiate deficit reductions. The sequester would occur only if there were no agreement. The required cuts were thought to be so mindless — affecting good programs and bad while providing little flexibility to make choices — that the congressional leaders would have to agree.
Well, they didn’t. The sequester was originally scheduled to start Jan. 1. As a part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Congress delayed that until March 1. But now without an agreement, the sequester looms again.
The consequences would be widespread. The Pentagon would have to cut spending 8.8 percent, estimates Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank specializing in defense issues. Among civilian workers, there would almost certainly be furloughs. Procurement contracts would have to be rewritten to reduce purchases; interestingly, the unit costs of weapons and other supplies would probably rise, as fixed costs were spread over shorter production runs. Training would be cut, leaving the services less prepared for combat.
Dozens of non-defense programs would suffer cuts averaging about 5 percent, according to Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. These would include: the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Park Service, the Department of Homeland Security — and many more. Here, too, there would probably be furloughs; some projects would be delayed or canceled; grants to states and localities would be trimmed.
With hindsight, the sequester’s failure to compel consensus seems understandable. For Republicans, the sequester guarantees spending reductions — even if many abhor the defense cuts — and avoids tax increases. Democrats may dislike the domestic cuts, but they also know that the biggest social programs are off the table — Social Security, Medicaid and most of Medicare (Medicare is subject to a 2 percent cut, but all of that would come from lower payment rates to doctors, hospitals and other providers).
As important, the impact on the public would be modest. Of course, there would be an orgy of media stories on the disruptions. Some national parks might close temporarily; food inspections might decline; Head Start classes might shut; border patrols might drop. But most Americans wouldn’t be affected directly and wouldn’t, therefore, pressure their elected officials to reach agreement.
To be effective, a sequester has to hit millions of Americans so hard that, if it took effect, mobs of outraged voters would storm Capitol Hill.
Here’s my modest proposal to do that. Unless congressional negotiators agreed on at least $1 trillion in deficit cuts over a decade — personally, I’d go higher — then the desired amount would be raised in two ways: half from across-the-board income-tax increases and half from across-the-board Social Security cuts. People would see their take-home pay and retiree benefits reduced. There would be no mystery.
I don’t doubt that this sequester would force an agreement. It would probably include some cuts in Social Security and some tax increases, along with cuts in defense and domestic programs. It would be more balanced than the present sequester. Leaders would have to judge the worth of specific programs against the burdens of specific tax increases. They could argue over the timing of tax and spending changes. All this would be healthy.
It won’t happen. Truth in journalism: I have proposed this before. There were no takers. It would astonish me if there were any now. But the point is that there is a path to agreement. The fact that our so-called leaders don’t take it reflects their calculation that disagreeing is better politics.
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