What Congress Could—But Won't—Do on Sequestration

It's clear that rather than making difficult decisions, Congress is going to let indiscriminate cuts equally slice the good and the bad.

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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The automatic across-the-board budget cuts know as sequestration are only three days away and the only thing that appears certain is that Congress will do the stupid thing rather than the right thing: They are going to let the indiscriminate cuts slice the good and the bad in equal portion instead of stopping the finger pointing and doing the hard work of making difficult decisions. 

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

Taxpayers for Common Sense has documented ways to smartly meet or exceed the deficit reduction targets created by the Budget Control Act, and others have too. But it's worth looking at the options and political positions that are likely to be debated this week.

  1. The only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester—and no cuts. Interestingly, people from the right and the left have come to this conclusion, albeit for slightly different reasons. Conservatives like Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio assert that the difficulty in getting Congress to agree on any cuts is so great that it would be better for the country to accept arbitrary cuts than no cuts at all. Progressives like former governor Howard Dean argue that deep cuts in the defense budget are needed and only possible through the mechanism of sequestration. The advantage for proponents of this option is that it relies on the most powerful force in Washington: inertia. On the other hand, this approach accepts the worst aspects of a mechanism designed to be so horrible it would be incentive to act.
  2. Let's just give agencies some flexibility to reach the same level of cuts. Others, mostly on the right side of the political spectrum, are arguing for this slight shift in strategy that would allow either all agencies or simply the Department of Defense to targets its spending reduction rather than implement them evenly across the different accounts in their budget. By law, sequestration requires equal percentage cuts to every “project, program, or activity.” Republican Sen. Inhofe  has proposed allowing the five service chiefs to make those decisions, which begs the questions of whether from a strategic standpoint we need to cut all the services equally or whether some services might be able to absorb more cuts than others. Democrats and others on the left agree that a flexibility would lessen the harmful impact of sequester cuts, but few are actually advocating for flexibility as a short term fix.  The odd thing about this proposal is that while there seems to be pretty wide agreement that giving agencies flexibility would be an improvement, I think there is little chance it will happen, at least before sequestration kicks in March 1.
  3. Let's pass a package that combines revenue raisers and cuts that would satisfy one year of the deficit reduction targets. There is nothing wrong with this idea in theory, but the proposal by the Senate Democrats to postpone the sequester by a full year falls short in many ways.  Many of the ideas and proposals are reasonable—for example everyone agrees that sending checks to landowners based on the fact the land was previously farmed makes little sense. But instead of eliminating “direct payments”  and other related agriculture subsidies that would save $50 billion, the Senate provision is only saving $27 billion and actually jumpstarting some programs that have expired.  And tar sands producers should pay into the trust fund that pays for oil spills, including tar sands spills, but neither proposal moves us forward on the underlying problems caused by more than a decade of spending more money than we take in—even in good economic times.  But, the biggest flaw with the proposal is that it relies on speculative savings over the next 10 years to offset one  year of hard deficit reductions.
  4. Let's save the defense budget and move more of the cuts to domestic spending.  Some conservatives in the House of Representatives have proposed the $43 billion in cuts slated for the defense budget simply be shifted to domestic spending—targeting some areas not currently subject to the sequester like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps) and certain programs within the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, I think this proposal ignores the very real shift among conservatives that there is waste in the defense budget, and people who are concerned about national security cannot equate higher spending with more security.  
  5. [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

    Unfortunately, I don't think we'll hear lawmakers acknowledging the underlying challenges to the task of bringing spending and revenues in alignment with each other and with the needs and demands of our country. There is wide disagreement on many topics among elected officials. There is little support for most specific cuts, a fact highlighted by the notable absence of discussions of specifics among political leaders. But there is another opportunity right around the corner for Congress to start doing the hard work of making difficult decisions: the continuing resolution funding government at fiscal year 2012 levels on March 27. If Congress hasn't resolved sequestration at that point, expect them to wave their hands in the air and adopt a flexibility approach and possibly less steep cuts in the short-term for larger ones ramping up in future years.   

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