With $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over a decade due to start taking effect March 1, members of Congress have been in recess. Naturally, the state Democratic Party held a press event criticizing Republicans for not staying in Washington to stop those cuts from happening.
Actually, maybe it would be best if Congress just stayed home for a while.
This crisis of March 1 has been a long time coming. Back in 2011 when Congress and the president couldn’t agree to a credible deficit reduction plan to raise the debt ceiling, they concocted a collection of budget cuts and tax increases that was supposed to be so bad that even they would decide to work together to avert it. That was the "fiscal cliff" that was supposed to happen back at the beginning of the year.
As the cliff approached, Congress and the White House at the last minute avoided most of the tax increases except those levied on the wealthiest Americans. They put off the spending cuts – known as "sequestration" – until this upcoming Friday.
Now President Obama and other officials are emphasizing the impact of those cuts, which would equal $85 billion this year. Half would affect the Pentagon, resulting in what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called potentially a "hollow force." Among the proposed cuts would be reducing the workweeks of civilian employees and sending one less aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.
The United States is already responsible for 40 percent of all worldwide military spending. It spends about the same on its military as is spent on the next largest 13 militaries combined. We should be able to get by, assuming we don’t try to topple any dictators in the near future.
Meanwhile, Obama is pointing to the other cuts that would occur – in unemployment benefits, in mental health programs, in food inspection. Earlier this week, he stood in front of uniformed first responders and asked if Americans really wanted people like that to lose their jobs. He’s warning that sequestration could cause the country to sink into recession. He says he wants a more thoughtful, "balanced approach."
He’s right that these cuts would be painful and that it would be better to instead have a long-term plan that reforms the current tax code and makes Medicare and Social Security viable as the baby boomers retire.
Even serious budget-cutters agree that sequestration is not the best way to reduce the deficit. Those include former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles – the Simpson and Bowles of Simpson-Bowles, whose recommendations the president ignored.
The difference is that they would actually follow through on that balanced approach. Because Sen. Simpson and Mr. Bowles are not in office, we’ve got to take deficit reduction where we can get it, and for now, that’s through sequestration.
Yes, the cuts would be painful. Stepping back from the brink of bankruptcy usually is. Despite what debt-deniers tell us, the country cannot continue to spend money it does not have until the economy grows so much that nobody will feel a thing.
But if recent history is any guide, we’ll instead have yet another last-minute decision that delays action until the next unnecessary crisis. We’ve got another one scheduled April 15, when members of each house of Congress must produce a budget or start losing their pay, and then another one May 19, when the country bumps its head on another debt ceiling.
This is no way to run a government, but Congress and the White House may not be able to do much better for now. Perhaps the only thing left is ask them all to stay home for a while and stop trying to run it at all.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org