The Sequester: I would wager that just a few months ago very few of you knew what the word “sequester” meant. Maybe you didn’t know how to pronounce it either (see-kwes-ter). I can tell you that I had never heard the word before I was elected to Congress. And, it took me a couple of terms on the budget committee to become familiar with it.
But, now we all know. It is a budgeting mechanism by which across-the-board spending reductions are enforced. And, it went into effect on March 1st.
Listening to the president, you would think that the Mayan calendar was off by a couple of months and that the end of the world was really coming as a result of the Sequester. From the dramatic rhetoric in his perpetual campaign swing, it sounds like life as we know it will cease because of a 2% reduction in the growth of planned government spending. What you are not hearing is that even with the Sequester cuts in effect, total federal spending this year will be higher than last year. So, why all the drama? Because it is clear that the president wants to increase spending and increase taxes and he wants you to think that the future of the republic rests upon every dollar of the $3.6 trillion that is spent annually by the federal government.
The president is completely wrong and his rhetoric is irresponsible. Here are 9 reasons why the Sequester should be left in place:
1. This was the compromise!: Remember how the Sequester came into being? It was the spending reduction that President Obama offered House Republicans in August of 2011 in exchange for increasing the debt limit past his reelection. We do not need to now compromise on the Sequester because it WAS the compromise. To give this up without replacing the Sequester’s reductions with other dollar for dollar reductions would be akin to having raised the debt limit with no deficit reduction whatsoever.
2. “It’s about the debt and deficit, stupid”: Remember the national debt? It stands close to $16.7 trillion and rising. Remember the deficit? It’s still close to $1 trillion a year with no hope for balancing in sight. The Sequester does not stand in a vacuum. If we don’t keep the cuts, we will borrow another $85 billion this year. This will bring us closer to the day when we follow the now well-worn path of Greece, Spain and Japan to a debt crisis or economic malaise that will cause a forced fiscal contraction 10-15 times this size. We must reduce the deficit slowly to avoid this fate. The Sequester is the first step.
3. The “cuts” aren’t all cuts and they aren’t that big: After the Sequester, non-defense government spending will still be 12% higher than it was when Obama took office. That means that these “draconian cuts” actually allow most government agencies to spend more, after inflation adjustment, than they did 4 years ago. How is an increase faster than inflation a draconian cut? Now, it is different in defense. Defense will be left, after the Sequester, with a 3% increase in spending since Obama took office (not including war costs). So, after inflation, defense will in fact have to spend less, but not “dramatically” less.
4. Don’t fall for the Washington Monument strategy: In any fiscal standoff, it’s an age-old strategy in Washington to threaten that the most visible, recognizable and noticeable things to the average person will be compromised. In past debates, this has manifested itself in claims that the Washington Monument would be shut down. This time, it’s allowing planes to crash because air traffic controllers will be furloughed. Does anyone really believe that there is nothing in the approximately $70 billion annual Department of Transportation budget that can’t be reduced a tiny bit other than air traffic controllers? The Department of Agriculture has more economists than any entity on earth. How about furloughing some of them? As another example, the president said last week that the Capitol will become filthy because janitors will be laid off. Almost immediately afterwards, the Architect of the Capitol, who is in charge of maintaining the Capitol, said he will absolutely not do that. Don’t fall for the monument strategy.
5. If we can’t do this, what can we do?: The Sequester is a 2% reduction in this year’s growth in federal spending, which still leaves total spending higher than last year. Tax revenues will be the highest ever. But, even after the Sequester, we still are projecting a deficit. Spending is still over 20% higher than the revenue raised by the just increased taxes. If we can’t do 2%, how will we ever close the gap on the other 20%? I suspect that the president’s strategy, as supported by his compliant Democratic allies in Congress, is to make even the smallest reduction in growth so “painful” politically that it will forestall any further attempts to shrink the deficit by means of cutting spending.
6. Calls the president’s bluff: It is well established that the Sequester was the president’s idea as a compromise on the August 2011 debt limit debate. He put defense reductions in there thinking that they would be such anathema to Republicans that we would refuse to allow the Sequester to happen. He was wrong. To their credit, even the most hawkish defense Republicans understand the national security risk posed by the debt. So, we did not cave. It also turns out that the president can’t stand even reducing the growth in places like EPA administrators or the number of IRS agents needed to enforce Obamacare, etc. Truly, what he is really worried about is losing some ability to enforce the myriad of unlawful or unnecessary regulations he promulgates every day to dampen economic growth. Cutting these areas would render a double benefit: less deficit and less regulatory burden.
7. The military can handle it: On the defense side, there is no question that it results in less spending power for that department. But, we can do it and still defend the country. Defense spending is still higher today, in constant dollars, than it was at the height of the Vietnam War or any time since. We have nearly 150,000 more non-uniformed, civilian employees at the Department of Defense than we did when Obama took office. Even here, we can spend less money more intelligently without impacting the “point of the spear”.
8. It will not hurt the economy: The Sequester will have far less effect on the economy than the 32 cent increase in gas prices that has occurred in the last 30 days. Energy prices take money out of everyone’s pocket. Do you hear the president running around the country saying we need to develop our available oil and gas resources to help on that front? Of course not. That would actually be true and have a meaningful effect.
9. This is the start: Remember entitlements? They still represent over 60% of federal spending. If the Sequester stays in place, it controls the growth of non-entitlement spending for the next 8 years. It will then be time to turn our attention to reforming and slowing the growth in entitlement spending in order to save those programs from bankruptcy. Let’s get the relatively small Sequester cuts over with and move on to the next and much bigger frontier for saving America.
Amazingly, we all woke up on March 2nd, just as we did on the Mayan end-of-the-world day, December 22nd, and the country seems to still be going along much as it was. Sorry, Mayan King Pacal Votan and President Obama.
This week, Republicans in the House will pass a measure (CR) to fund the government to the end of the fiscal year (September 30) at the sequester level. This measure will have a bipartisan, bicameral agreement in it to protect the “point of the spear” in defense by directed defense reductions elsewhere in DoD’s budget. Then it’s the Senate’s turn. If the government shuts down, it will be because the Senate shuts it down in order to increase spending. Hopefully that will not happen.