Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of mischaracterizing the effects of the sequester scheduled to take effect today. Democrats suggest that the across-the-board cuts will result in doomsday while Republicans shrug them off, implying that nobody will notice them.
As often is the case, reality lies somewhere in the middle.
The Senate failed to pass two alternatives to the sequester, one from each party, Thursday afternoon. The Republican plan, which would have granted President Obama more authority to choose which programs the automatic cuts affected, was rejected on a 62-38 vote. All but two Democrats opposed it, while nine Republicans voted against it, fearing it would give Obama too much power.
The Democratic bill consisted of a package of cuts and tax revenues designed to replace the across-the-board cuts. It failed on a 51-49 vote, which fell short of the 60-vote threshhold necessary to prevent a filibuster.
Following the votes, senators were scheduled to leave town for the weekend, allowing the sequester to take effect.
Overall, the sequester calls for $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts to federal spending over 10 years. But $85 billion of those cuts would come during this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Some have downplayed the effect of the cuts, noting that $85 billion represents only 2.3 percent of the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Surely, cutting 2.3 percent from any government office would not pose serious hardship.
But, as the Washington Post reports, that 2.3 percent will be applied to only a small portion of the budget over the next seven months. Entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps would not be cut even though those programs are most responsible for spending growth. Pay for military service members, another big-ticket item, also is off the table.
The cuts would affect only discretionary spending controlled by Congress, including pay for civilian employees in the military. That spending represents only about a third of the entire budget.
That means, according to the Post, that the $85 billion will come out of about $1.2 trillion, not the entire $3.7 trillion budget. And that is a reduction of about 8 percent, across the board, which is considerably larger than a 2.3 percent cut.
But even at 8 percent, it might not be disastrous. Unfortunately, what’s most harmful is that neither Congress nor the president will have much discretion over where the cuts occur. As the sequester requires, every government agency will be cut equally.
Even though this will occur over the relatively short period of seven months, it might seem like slow motion to most Americans. Government won’t shut down overnight.
Nonetheless, disruptions are likely. Lines at airports could be longer; food safety inspections could slow; layoffs and furloughs will have an affect on various services.
The overarching point is that, while the sequester might not result in catastrophe right away, it is not a rational way to cut the deficit or encourage confidence in the nation’s ability to manage its economy. Sadly, both Democrats and Republicans know that but could not find a way to avoid the sequester even with nearly a year to do so.
The president and congressional leaders planned to meet this morning to seek a last-minute deal to end or postpone the sequester. But neither side was optimistic that any such deal could be made.
So, while both sides seek to win political advantage, the nation loses.