Sequester: Held in contempt


I hate the sequester, beginning with its name. “Sequester” is a verb, not a noun. This ridiculous exercise is not just unwise and unproductive, but ungrammatical as well.

I hate the way the sequester diverts attention from issues that actually matter, like unemployment, gun violence, climate change, failing schools and the need to spur economic growth. I hate the way it heightens our insularity at a time when we really ought to be paying attention to the rest of the world. Remember Syria? Dictator Bashar al-Assad is still slaughtering civilians left and right. Wasn’t he supposed to be gone by now?

I hate the sequester’s artificiality. With all the nation’s problems, our leaders created a new one for political reasons — and then, for those same political reasons, they didn’t even try to solve it.

I hate the sequester’s essential ambiguity, its Janus-faced dual nature. It is punishing, cruel and counterproductive, as the White House insists; and it is also no big deal, as Republicans contend.

President Obama is correct when he says that the sequester’s blunt-instrument cuts will cause needless hardship, even if the administration has been alarmist and flat-out wrong with some of its warnings.

The president’s claim that janitors at the U.S. Capitol would receive a pay cut and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s report that some teachers have already gotten “pink slips” both were awarded Four Pinocchios by The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” columnist, Glenn Kessler. This roughly translates as “not even remotely true.”

But the administration’s dire warnings of airport congestion and flight delays are plausible, Kessler found, and perhaps inevitable. And while there have been no immediate furloughs or layoffs — in schools, government agencies or firms dependent on government contracts — the math suggests there will be.

However, Republicans are correct when they say: Come on, get real, we’re talking about an across-the-board cut of $85 billion, just 2 percent of the budget. While they’re wrong to claim that a cut of this magnitude will be painless, they’re right to point out that the republic will not crumble into dust.

Medicare will see no more than a 2 percent cut, while Medicaid and Social Security will be untouched. Since these programs are so big and costly, other parts of the budget will have to face much deeper cuts to make up the total $85 billion savings. Defense spending is slated to be hit hardest, with an annualized budget reduction of nearly 10 percent.

Republicans would be right to note that the Pentagon will still eat up about half of all “discretionary” federal spending — and that the United States’ position as the world’s leading military power would remain unchallenged. But they don’t want to point this out because the GOP is supposed to be the strong-on-defense party that never met a gazillion-dollar weapons system it didn’t like.

Which brings me to another thing I hate about the sequester: the political incompetence and miscalculation that produced it. To quote baseball legend Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

Obama figured that Republicans would be so horrified at the prospect of deep defense cuts that they would make a deal on his terms, even after being forced to accept a humiliating defeat — and a modest tax increase for the wealthy — in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations two months ago.

The president apparently didn’t foresee that the Republican Party’s activist base would approach the sequester deadline full of outrage, not resignation. And neither he nor the GOP leadership seems to have fully grasped how opinion within the party has shifted on defense spending. On shrinking the Pentagon, many tea party Republicans are closer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party than to their own party’s establishment.

To review: Entitlement spending is largely untouched, and defense spending isn’t the sacred cow it once was. Thus neither party has an incentive to make concessions, at least until the true impact of the cuts is felt. Which will take time.

What I really hate about the sequester is the way it confirms the conventional wisdom that “both sides are wrong.” This is usually the kind of lazy pseudoanalysis that drives me up the wall. But it took both Obama and the Republicans to get us into this mess — and nobody has a clue how to get us out of it.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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