Sequestration was a device borne out of desperation when Democrats and Republicans showed themselves incapable of making the hard decisions necessary to reduce budget deficits. Its genius was supposed to lie in the presumption that if it happened, its consequences would be so painful that neither side would allow it to happen.
Two political parties who couldn’t bring themselves to agree on following the Simpson-Bowles road map decided to plan a detour that would lead them Thelma-Louise style over a cliff unless they both agreed to slam on the brakes.
It was masterful in its simplicity — driving off a cliff together only looks like an answer in a movie, not in real life. But a few things happened in the year and a half after sequestration was agreed to.
President Obama was re-elected on a platform that if painful cuts were going to be made in social programs, some of the pain was going to have to also be shouldered by those folks who have disproportionately prospered during an anemic economic recovery. Meanwhile, Republicans retained control of the House, thanks in no small part to the ability of a number of state legislatures (including Ohio’s) to gerrymander districts in their favor. They say they have a mandate from their constituents to cut spending, not increase taxes in any way.
And finally, there has arisen a growing chorus among fiscal conservative think tanks, pundits and politicians that suggests that if people tried sequestration they’d like it. We’re only cutting pennies on the dollar, they say. How bad could it be? they ask.
We’d say that badness is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re safely ensconced in one of those think tanks, or if you’re George Will or John Boehner, it probably won’t be bad at all. But if you’re one of the tens of thousands of government employees — including civilians in the defense department — looking a cutbacks or layoffs, it could get pretty bad. Or if you’re someone who receives services from the government workers being cut, then it could be kind of bad for you. Or if you are a mechanic, a grocer, a landlord, or anyone else who counts on those government workers spending money with you, well, it could get bad for you, too.
Time for compromise
Unless Congress and the White House use the next four days to reach a compromise, sequestration will go into effect and, in our opinion, it will be bad. Not the first day or even the first week, except for those immediately affected, but the pain will eventually spread far and wide. Except, ironically, for those most responsible, our elected officials.
Because Medicaid and Social Security were insulated from cuts, about $85 billion will be cut this year from defense and other domestic programs. That will mean a cut of about 13 percent in defense and 9 percent in other areas. That may be “only” pennies on the dollar, but those are a lot of dollars and their loss could cost the economy about 750,000 jobs when all is said and done.
And those kinds of losses eventually affect a lot of people, especially in a fragile economy.
This nation has been spending more than it takes in at an alarming rate for more than 30 years, under three Republican presidents and two Democrats (although Bill Clinton did managed to rein in the deficit in his last two years). The trend has to be reversed, but it has to be reversed sensibly. Crashing the economy now on the theory that we’ll all be the better for it someday is, if not insane, at least irresponsible.
It is not too much to ask that our elected representatives pursue a balanced approach that is in the best interest of the nation. That’s what they’re getting paid to do.