The Press is Missing the Sequester's Evil Genius

The $85 billion in budget cuts should cause outrage, but spreading it out might allow the GOP to get away with it.

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Love it or hate it, there's a certain genius to the sequester. No, it's not the notion of including cuts aimed at offending folks on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Nor is it its purported ability to force a budget deal. No, the genius is in the seven months it will take to unfold.

Why? Because $85 billion in budget cuts should cause outrage from coast to coast. But spread it out over seven months, and you might just get away with it.

Take a look at what's happening in Indiana. The Associated Press reports that Head Start programs in Columbus and Franklin Counties have "resorted to a random drawing" to figure out which three dozen kids to drop from their early childhood education program because of sequester budget cuts. Those will be the first children to lose what is anticipated to be about 1,000 slots statewide.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

It's one of the opening skirmishes in a slow rolling war of attrition that will eventually play out across the country. The 600 families who've already learned they're losing rental assistance in King County Washington. The 418 who've lost their jobs at an Army Depot in Pennsylvania. The Kentucky hospital that fired 28 workers.

None of these examples, on their own, are enough to garner national headlines. At least at this early stage, it can be hard to get your head around the impact of a policy that costs thirty jobs here, kicks another hundred people out of a program there, dribs and drabs of misfortune that can easily get lost in the shuffle.

Eventually, of course, the depth of the sequester cuts will add up to major setbacks for countless Americans across the country. But by then, Republicans hope the waters will be sufficiently muddied, the connection between pain and the sequester sufficiently attenuated in the public's mind, the cuts themselves sufficiently entrenched that mounting an effort to roll them back will fall to nothing. Genius.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Now, as it happens, there's an entity well-positioned to foil the Republican plan: It's the media. And a media committed to methodically reporting not only the day-to-day impact of the sequester on ordinary lives, but also the big picture of what the little examples are adding up to would do us all a real service.

Instead we get this: An examination by ThinkProgress found that the suspension of White House tours "were mentioned 33 times as often (Fox News had 163 segments, CNN had 59, and MSNBC had 42)" on cable news "as mentions of other sequester impacts hitting the poor. Any discussion of sequestration's steep cuts to housing assistance, food stamps, and Head Start early education was virtually nonexistent on all 3 networks in the same time frame." And as you've no doubt seen, it's not just cable. White House tours have been everywhere, from the Washington Post editorial pages to the nether reaches of talk radio.

So when Michigan Republican Rep. Candice Miller urges the President to "stop trying to justify the unjustifiable," or Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran  says, "We can and must be smarter with our spending decisions and make cuts in ways that do not intentionally and unnecessarily inflict hardship and aggravation upon the American people," or when South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune asserts that White House tours are "not the kind of duplicative and wasteful spending that we should be looking to target," the media plays right along. This despite the fact that by any rational analysis, the cut that unjustifiably inflicts hardship on the American people is the one that denies underprivileged children an entrée to critical early education services.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Seriously. What must you think of the government if, after taking a full view of the sequester, you hone in on the suspension of White House tours as the element deserving of such disproportionate attention? That the other programs really aren't very significant at all. For Republicans, that's really the point. We might have expected the media to take a more critical view of the matter. No such luck.

Look, I like a good White House tour as much as the next person. And if you have a child who was looking forward to one, that's can be a hard thing. But I think I may have a solution: tell them why they can't go, and be ready with an alternative thing to do. There are lots of other fun and educational activities in Washington, after all.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Loses Politically With Sequestration?]

Here's a harder question: what do we say to the Indiana Head Start mother who told the AP that "[my son] loves school...I don't know how I'm going to tell him he's not going back."

I've come to think of the sequester in the following (admittedly gruesome) way: it's something like a snake eating a hamster. If it gobbles up fluffy all in one bite, you can see that hump moving all the way down the line as snake digests his delectable treat. Hard to miss. But if snake eats fluffy one little bite at a time, the hamster's still dead, and nobody notices. Unless someone calls the snake out.

Hey media: your move.

  • Read Jamie Chandler: The GOP's New Plan for the Future Lacks Long-Term Vision
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  • Updated 3/21/13: The original version of this blog post omitted the last line.