The recent experience with the “sequester” in Washington, D.C., revealed in many ways what is wrong with Washington. But it also contains a silver lining that I hope bodes well for the future.
First and foremost, in classic government-speak, we once again are using words that make little or no sense to any normal person. The very word “sequester” is a noun only to people who haven’t ventured out of Washington since, say, the Reagan administration. To some the word “sequester” is what you do to a jury (think: the O.J. trial) or what some folks want to do with carbon dioxide (i.e.: bury it underground).
I saw a late night comedy show on television where the host suggested to the “man-on-the-street” that North Korea was building a sequester, and inquired as to whether that was a good thing. Most people thought it was not.
Next, we had the obligatory “the world is going to end if we don’t do something” rhetoric. This became popular back during the end of the Bush Administration with the onset of the financial crisis, and has sort of remained a constant in Washington since then. Thus, we had the first debt ceiling “crisis,” a fiscal cliff “crisis,” and various government shutdown crises (did you know that between 1980 and 1994 the government shut down nine times? Amazingly we managed to survive.) And while both parties have been guilty of playing Chicken Little over the last few years, the White House led the way this time, warning of near Mayan Apocalypse results if somehow we didn’t stop the evil sequester.
The sequester isn’t evil any more than it is a North Korean weapon. What it is, is various automatic, across-the-board spending cuts amounting to roughly one penny out of every dollar the government spends, or just over four cents on every dollar of what we call “discretionary” spending, which is basically everything other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And while that is a lot of money – about $45 billion this year—there is still a lot of money being spent (about $3750 billion.) Looked at another way, the sequester reduced our deficit this year by about three pennies on each dollar.
Are the cuts “stupid” or poorly implemented? In a way, yes. After all, because of the agreement between the House, the Senate and the White House in August of 2011 (an agreement which I voted against) a full half of the cuts fall on our military—-resulting in about an 11 percent cut to defense. And while no one is more dedicated than I am to finding savings in the Defense Department, an 11 percent cut is not the best way to do that. And across-the-board cuts, in general, treat “good” spending the same as “bad.” That being said, I’ve always found it interesting that those who object strongest to across-the-board cuts as being bad policy are often the ones who simply can never find any smart, targeted spending reductions either.
Thus, we were left with the choice: less-than-ideal spending reductions or no reductions at all. And we have to start spending less. Period.
What is the silver lining in this sequester mess? As I never get tired of saying: the American people are way ahead of Washington, and they get it. They’ve had to cut more than a penny off of their own budgets, and they know we can do it. In fact, they know we should do it…and should’ve done it a long time ago.
Thus, as the stories leak out that the Administration is letting illegal immigrant criminals go free and ending White House tours for high school groups, Americans are responding exactly as normal people should: they are asking if those are really the first things that should’ve been cut? Why not the $340,000,000 in parties for federal agencies? Why not free cell phones? Why not food tasting on Mars? Soon, we may be hearing about cuts to things here in South Carolina. When we do, we need to be sure to ask the same question: has the government cut all waste and rooted out all the fraud before it cut our services? If not, then why are we paying the price?
And that is the silver lining: we are, all of us, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, having a national dialogue about what is really important for our government, and what our government could do without. And it has been much too long since we have done that.
As an aside: I think folks would be proud of the way their Congressional office has handled the sequester. Not only did we return $160,000 to the treasury last year, but we have been able to manage the sequester —- yes, our offices had about an 8 percent cut —- without real impacts on constituent services. And we have even been able to continue offering Capitol tours.
Because we know that cutting a couple of pennies isn’t the end of the world. Indeed, we cannot allow it to be, if we are ever going to balance our budget.
And I think folks back home get that, even if they have no idea what the “sequester” is.