Sequestration and How Not to Govern

Sequestration and how not to govern.

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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Before heading home last week, the Senate and the House passed a sequester work-around to spare us from what had become the most visible consequence of the Budget Control Act – delays for travelers and smaller paychecks for air traffic controllers. Really, Congress, is this how we are going to fix the budget, temper the effects of across-the-board budget cuts and move the country forward? It is almost so absurd that it feels like I should be writing for The Onion or some other satirical outlet. 

It is not that furloughed air traffic controllers and delayed travelers deserve no sympathy – they do. I don't care what your job or your salary is, if you are counting on a paycheck, a reduction at the wrong time can be tough to take. Similarly, a delayed flight that contributes to missing a meeting or failing to make it somewhere for a big event can have real consequences.   

But that's the point: there are consequences to sequestration. And there were supposed to be. Policymakers included the threat of sequestration in the Budget Control Act because they believed the fear of the thoughtless, across-the-board nature of these budget cuts would force more thoughtful and productive deficit reduction measures. Now that they see the thoughtless consequences, lawmakers are starting to undo the most unpopular. First Congress saved the meat inspectors, then the air traffic controllers, what's next? Acronym by acronym, agency by agency sequester saving carve outs are no way to fix a budget or run a country.    

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

And the air traffic control funding fix seems particularly cynical – in order to reverse furloughs and avoid layoffs, Congress took money from the Airport Improvement Program, which funds capital improvements at airports. If three days of delayed flights brought on such a panic that Congress had to act to free up money, what will happen when runways need repairs down the line? Does anyone really think Congress will say "Sorry, we spent that money to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers, those repairs will have to wait" instead of borrowing more money from some other account? The low tolerance for political pain makes that outcome impossible to imagine.

For all of its hand wringing in the last two years about debts and deficits, Congress has made almost no tough choices. The bipartisan "super committee" failed to identify even one dollar of deficit reduction. Both Republicans and Democrats are unwilling to propose packages of targeted spending cuts to meet any portion of the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction they swore themselves (and us) to with the passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011. The fiscal year 2013 spending bills weren't adopted until the fiscal year was more than six months old.  MAP-21, a transportation reauthorization bill that was one of the more consequential pieces of legislation passed since the 2011 debt ceiling showdown spent more money than it took in. Meanwhile, the fiscal cliff deal did raise revenue by letting the top tax rate return to 2001 levels, but it made permanent a number of other breaks and added a huge package of so-called "temporary" tax breaks in an extenders package. In fact the deal as a whole subtracted more from the baseline than it added in new revenues.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

After all those debates and failures, Congress seems to be on a path of articulating a vision of democracy by piecemeal and political posturing. Does anyone actually believe that the best America can do is adding back pieces of government, one at a time, with temporary funding fixes? 

For its part, the Obama administration made a bad situation worse by simply assuming that some magical sequester solution would appear and make the budget all better. This ostrich approach means that amount of savings estimated from 9 months of across-the-board cuts has to be crammed into five, making the depth of the cuts more severe.

So what should policymakers do now that the pain of sequestration is upon us? Keep themselves busy with program by program exemptions? They have shown us that they know how to add, but not subtract spending, and how to subtract rather than add new revenues. What we need to see is the Congress and the president make hard choices that will get us closer to kicking the habit of spending more money than we take in. Every member of Congress and the president chose to run for office and worked hard to win. Now it's time to do the difficult work we elected them to do. Here's our $2 trillion in deficit reduction to get them started

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