The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Federal budget can be trimmed without adding to the pain

The wholesale reduction in federal spending now looming for week’s end was once thought to be so horrible, so disastrous for the national economy, that responsible leaders would never let it go into effect. As it turns out, this belief underestimated the level of bitterness and incapacity in Washington.

Even though the so-called sequester is no one’s idea of a smart way to cut federal spending, it’s about to go into effect at the end of this week. Both sides have dug in their heels. Republicans and the White House are spending more time blaming each other than trying to avoid this self-inflicted crisis.

Neither side is blameless. The White House hatched this plan back in 2011 as a breakthrough to make a deal with Republicans in Congress who were refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which would have created an even-greater economic crisis worldwide. Surely, they believed, tempers would abate in the ensuing 18 months, cooler heads would prevail and the 2012 election would determine the nation’s future course.

Wrong on all counts. In today’s Washington, cooler heads are definitely in the minority and elections don’t have as great an impact as they once did. The federal government needs to come up with a balanced deficit reduction plan that makes smart choices for everyone, of that there is no doubt. But this is the wrong way to go about it, like using a sledge hammer to perform dental work.

• It does not deal with the real problem. The $1.2 trillion cuts in spending over a decade target a variety of domestic programs, including defense, but that’s not where the problem lies. Adjustments must be made in Medicare and Social Security to stop runaway spending and meet the challenge of the retiring baby-boomer generation, but this plan leaves the entitlement programs untouched. It’s not a solution by any definition.

The plan will produce a huge drag on the economy and might kill the recovery. The Congressional Budget Office said earlier this month that the sequester could cut the economic growth by 1.5 percent this year, which could mean hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.

• Popular and necessary programs would be harmed. As of Friday, dozens of federal agencies must start bringing their budgets down. The Pentagon warns that hundreds of thousands of workers might lose 22 days of work.

It’s already having an impact. Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told The Herald Editorial Board on Monday that his Panhandle district, which includes five military installations, is already feeling the pinch because so many civilian workers don’t know what’s in store for them and have reined in discretionary spending.

Meanwhile, money for food safety inspectors, air traffic controllers, airport security personnel and others would be cut. NASA plans to cancel six technology development programs, border security would be curtailed and national parks would close or have limited access. The list of impacted programs is long and painful.

This is, frankly, a stupid way to cut the budget. And there is a better way, if only both sides would realize that a deal — a real budget fix — requires give and take by all parties. The co-chairs of the president’s deficit-cutting commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, have stated and restated the obvious: Democrats need to accept deeper cuts in healthcare spending and Republicans need to accept more tax increases.

The president says he’s willing to sit down and deal. Now the other side needs to come to the table.

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