Sequestration: A 'crisis' that needs a scalpel, not a cleaver

Posted: March 01, 2013

THERE ARE NO skid marks as America drives over the cliff on Friday.

The nation stared out over the financial abyss known as "sequestration," shrugged, and stepped on the gas pedal. Thus could begin the steepest federal budget cuts in U.S. history - about $85 billion just in the first seven months . . . if nothing is done to change or revoke them.

Experts predict these budget cuts - whacking everything from the Pentagon to Head Start classes for preschoolers - will almost certainly be changed or revoked. But those same experts also predicted that "the sequester" would not happen in the first place.

Q. How did we get here?

A. Remember the debt-ceiling crisis of August 2011? Political gridlock emerged between tea-party GOPers who want drastically reduced government and Democrats, including President Obama, who want taxes to be part of any deficit-reduction plan.

The sequester was the answer, a kind of stomach-stapling forced diet for government. Unless the warring factions could agree on a real plan, cuts that were politically unpalpable to everyone would kick in in 2013.

It's 2013. The ploy didn't work.

Q. Are the cuts that bad?

A. Yes and no. If nothing is ever done, the cuts will total more than $1 trillion over the next decade. But the impact, theoretically, should be rolled out slowly over weeks, beginning with a 9.4 percent reduction in unemployment checks that go out next Thursday.

The cuts might inflict pain because they were poorly thought out. "These are not wise cuts and they will be detrimental - many people will feel the effects," said Mattea Kramer, research director of the National Priorities Project.

That hasn't stopped the Obama administration from starting or announcing other cuts - such as the release of some undocumented immigrants from detention - to score political points and possibly spur action.

Q. Is Obama winning this thing politically?

A. It feels as if everyone is a loser, but the White House, with a higher approval rating (about 50 percent) than Congress (less than 25 percent) seems to think that lawmakers will bear the brunt of inaction, as happened when the federal government shutdown in 1995.

But "most people are shrugging," concedes Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia historian, noting that Americans are simply exhausted from a never-ending series of deadlines and manufactured crises.

Q. How will Pennsylvania be affected?

A. Experts predict that the Keystone State will pay a higher toll, in part because there's more defense spending and scientific research here. Some of the lowlights of what the White House and U.S. Sen. Robert Casey say could happen here over time:

About 26,000 civilian Department of Defense employees would be furloughed - i.e., work fewer days - reducing pay by around $150.1 million; the state will lose a whopping $73.6 million for medical research and about $866,000 for job-search assistance; and there would be major cuts in aid to education, but much of that wouldn't start until the summer. Lawrence Feinberg, founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, said that "most federal education money goes to poor kids" - so they would take the hit.

Q. What else should I know?

A. Most importantly, this entire exercise is unnecessary and actually counterproductive, because there is no debt crisis. The ratio of U.S. debt to our gross national product is lower than it was in the 1940s and 1950s, and interest rates are at record lows. There is an unemployment crisis, however, and cuts to government spending and jobs are already threatening a new recession.

Also, there are worthy areas for budget cuts - most notably costly and unnecessary Pentagon weapons programs - but the sequestration plan hacks at spending with a meat cleaver when a scalpel would be much better.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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