Sequestration Sets Up a New Business as Usual

The sequester was supposed to spur Congress to end the same old way of doing business, but now it just gives the Defense Department special privileges.

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The Pentagon is spending nearly a $1 billion a year on a program that sends unemployment checks to former troops who left the military voluntarily.
The Pentagon is spending nearly a $1 billion a year on a program that sends unemployment checks to former troops who left the military voluntarily.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

So here we are in a post-sequester world: Has the planet stopped spinning? Has anything really changed? And what have we learned?

Sequestration is the mechanism designed to be so unwieldy and unwise it would scare a deeply divided Congress into agreeing upon common sense ways to put our country on a path to a sustainable, sound fiscal future.  Unfortunately, one thing we have learned is that Congress is just as unwieldy and unwise as the mechanism they voted to create less than two years ago.

We have also learned that the consequences of the sequester are not as dire as the doomsday predictions we've heard: essential services will not instantly disappear, we will not immediately be vulnerable to attacks at home, and airports will not shut down. At the same time, the cuts are not as inconsequential as others say.  Most agencies will not start to furlough workers until April or later, but many if not most will furlough some workers, and many services will be curtailed as cuts that were intended to be year-long cuts are implemented in seven months.

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

The across-the-board nature of thesequester requires agencies to cut every project, program, or activity equally. So, instead of protecting higher-priority programs or delaying new programs to distribute the pain in a logical and workable way, every program in every agency covered by the sequester must take a hit.  It's as if a household was required to cut back expenses by reducing every single payment, including the mortgage (this month we won't pay interest on the guest room!) rather than cancelling cable TV, turning down the heat, or taking the bus instead of driving.

And now we turn to how to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2013, which actually extends only through September 30th.  Remember, last year Congress decided to fund government at fiscal year 2012 levels through March 27 this year. Now, to avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers must appropriate sufficient funds for the remainder of the fiscal year. The House of Representatives yesterday passed a continuing resolution, or CR, which would fund government at top line sequester levels, allowing continued negotiations on the implementation and impacts of sequester without risking a government shutdown.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Of course, this being Congress, it is not quite that simple. The CR contains a full-year appropriations bill for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and shifts money around to ensure that certain programs in the nuclear weapons complex are protected.  The advantage of a full-scale appropriations bill for the Department of Defense is that while it appears to keep overall funding at sequester levels, it shifts funding into operations and maintenance accounts offset by nicks in other funding areas. It also allows Pentagon managers to gather savings where contracts have concluded and new programs or contracts have not begun. But shouldn't every agency have the flexibility to determine where to cut, just as a family should be able to decide whether health care is more important than cable? 

So while the sequester was supposed to spur Congress to end the same old way of doing business, it seems to have set up just a slightly new version of business as usual—giving the Defense Department special privileges. We're glad that Congress is not exempting defense altogether, as some lawmakers have loudly called for. But if what the debates over the last year have taught us is that our military leaders need flexibility to keep us secure, it makes sense that other agencies are capable of making the same decisions. The fact that we're all tightening our belts has finally hit home, but how each home deals with that fact will be different.

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