By The Editorial Board
Virtually all the sequester’s cuts are concentrated in the one-third of the budget that funds core government services.
The cuts are front-loaded, with the biggest impact coming in the early years.
You can’t pretend that cutting every program by the same percentage will be painless or logical.
In certain circles, the fashionable view is the automatic budget cuts that kick in today won’t be so bad. The cuts — $85 billion this year and nearly $1 trillion over the next nine — don’t look so big compared with annual federal spending of $3.8 trillion.
But don’t bet on this “sequestration” being a non-event or all political theater. If Congress and the White House can’t find a way to replace sequestration with something more rational, and do it soon, the cuts will hurt because they were designed to. Not necessarily right away, but eventually the pain will come.
Virtually all the sequester’s cuts are concentrated in the one-third of the budget that funds core government services. The cuts are front-loaded, with the biggest impact coming in the early years. And they give federal departments little flexibility on how to impose them.
This will be a drag on the economy and bring significant headaches in select areas — such as air traffic control, food inspection and immigration enforcement — where government is already stretched thin. And the surging cost of entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, guarantees the sequester won’t do that much to reduce the deficit.
None of this is to suggest that federal departments can’t, or shouldn’t, be made more efficient. There’s ample fat. On the domestic side, for example, government runs 47 job training programs costing $18 billion a year. The Defense Department budget finances a money-losing system of stores known as commissaries and an array of programs foisted upon the Pentagon by Congress, including unneeded military installations and weapons systems. For 2010, the House tacked on more than 1,000 military spending provisions totaling more than $2.8 billion, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
But taking $1 trillion-plus out of core government functions would necessitate going well beyond cutting bloat. A study by the centrist Brookings Institution on defense spending found that just to get to $200 billion in savings — well under the $492 billion in the sequester — would require steps such as cutting in half the number of F-35 joint strike fighters and refurbishing, rather than replacing, Trident submarines.
Virtually every budget expert has reached the same conclusion: You can’t pretend that cutting every program by the same percentage will be painless or logical. To get this much money out of the budget, you have to make tough choices about which programs to discontinue and be willing to make some significant reductions in the scope of government.
Overhauling the tax code to trim “tax expenditures” — such as the mortgage interest deduction, which costs more than $88 billion a year — is an additional opportunity. Those tax breaks are just spending by another name.
In the end, none of it will matter much unless the projected rise in entitlement spending, particularly for health care, is drastically slowed. That’s simple math. Those programs account for three-fifths of federal spending and climbing rapidly.
For today, though, the nation is left with the sequester, a meat-cleaver approach that was never supposed to go into effect. Rather, it was meant as a device to pressure Congress and President Obama to do something better. It is much like the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985, which also included automatic spending cuts if Congress didn’t do its job.
That approach failed, just as this one will. The record is clear that the way for Congress to cut the deficit is to cut the deficit, not pass a law that tries to pressure it to do so.
The good news out of the deficit-reduction donnybrook in the 1980s is that Congress eventually did hammer out a plan with President George H.W. Bush. Three years later, President Clinton signed a second plan. The two measures laid the groundwork for a balanced budget by the late 1990s.
This time, the United States doesn’t have years to waste on a dumb sequestration plan. It’s time for both parties and Obama to get to the bargaining table.