Three days ago, the President signed an order that codified a set of federal budget cuts known as The Sequester. Pundits have been screeching like scalded seagulls over this for weeks, decrying whichever party they feel is to blame for the cuts. It’s an orgy of blame, a veritable vomitorium of verbal attacks. I’m sure it’s a ratings for bonanza for people whose main audiences like to deal with the aftermath of any major policy initiative by hearing some talking head blame the guy they hate the most.
What no one is doing, of course, is explaining what sequestration is and why it happened. I’m going to try to trace it back to its origins and explain what it really means with my usual wit and decorum (read: there will be swearing). Unfortunately, my memory for the whole thing is faulty and my time to reread old articles is limited so yeah. This will be imperfect.
It all started back in the spring of 2011. The the debt ceiling – the statutory limit on what the US is allowed to borrow – was going to be insufficient to meet our borrowing needs and it needed to be raised. In other words, we needed to boost our credit limit. This happens all the time. Congress raises the debt ceiling every once in a while. It’s so common that they have boilerplate language they use to create the new law, they just fill in new numbers. It’s no biggie. Just part of how we do business. (Sidebar: If you want to know more about US debt and why it’s not like your Visa bill, read this great explanation by Paul Krugman.)
Until 2011. This time, the Republicans controlling the House of Representative decided to make the debt ceiling an issue. They said they would only vote to increase the debt ceiling if there were budget cuts of an equal value. Why? Because. There was going to be a big election in 2012 and they wanted to go home and tell their constituents that they cut spending. They wanted to make Democrats looks like profligate spenders who would borrow any amount of money to waste on bloated government programs. They wanted to defeat Obama.
The problem was, that they really needed to raise the debt limit in order to avoid defaulting on our existing debt and turning into the international equivalent of that friend you had in college who signed up for every credit card she was offered and then couldn’t get a mortgage later in life because she spent money she didn’t have on rounds for the whole bar in Cabo during spring break in 1992. So, everyone in Washington started trying to make a deal that would a) get the debt limit raised and b) look good politically.
(Sidebar: You know what would have been the most politically expedient option? Passing a debt limit increase with no fanfare. No one would have noticed and everyone on Capitol Hill could have avoided looking like an asshat. Bonus? No sequester.)
There were intensive machinations going on all over town, some public, some secret, some well-thought out and considerate, some just bombs being thrown into the mix. (Sidebar: For an extensive look at who said and did what, check out this amazing piece from Matt Bai. Warning: It will make you hate everyone in Washington.) All negotiations failed. No compromise was reached. Instead, both sides agreed to raise the debt ceiling with the understanding that there would be a bipartisan, bicameral Supercommittee put in place to develop a series of budget cuts. If the Supercommittee couldn’t come up with a package of cuts that the whole Congress would then vote into law, a set of pre-arranged automatic cuts would be enacted by a process called – you guessed it – sequestration.
So, yes. We have known this was going to happen for 18 months. And nobody did anything to stop it.
Now, I wrote about the Supercommitte in 2011, before they announced that they had failed to come up with a working framework for cuts. I contended then, as I contend now, that their failure was due to political considerations. Republicans refused to consider revenues for fear of being assfucked by Satan while Grover Norquist taunted them and Democrats were afraid of being trampled to death by angry moms of grandmas waving electrical cords and screaming “I’ll pull your plug, you Medicare traitor!”. So, instead of risking pissing off a core constituency with an election looming, they just quit. And without a plan from those bozos, well, Congress missed its deadline for passing an alternative to sequestration. Hence, sequestration.
(Sidebar: My Representative was on the Supercommittee. He’s now all over tv and radio bemoaning the awful effects sequestration cuts will have on this region with its enormous federal workforce. That is why you will frequently see me in my car screaming “YOU FUCKING HYPOCRITE! THIS IS YOUR FUCKING FAULT! YOU HAD THE POWER TO STOP THIS IN 2011 AND YOU FUCKING FAILED! QUIT YOUR BOOHOOING!” My baby is usually in my car when this happens. Her first word will probably be “fuck” and it’s all Congress’s fault.)
Now, what are the sequestration cuts exactly? It’s a multi-year set of cuts to a wide swath of federal programs. I stole this handy chart that Pew created from the Washington Post, which did an great, easy-to-read write up of what the cuts actually entail.
Is your pet program going to take a hit? Yes. Will it affect public services? Yes. Are federal employees going to get screwed? Oh yeah. Is anyone in Congress going to try and fix the problem? Well…
Here’s the thing. We do need to cut spending. Everyone knows that. For some in Congress, this meat-cleaver approach where we just lop the top off of departmental budgets and force them to figure it out is not the worst idea they’ve ever heard. It’s certainly easier than the endless negotiations of the regular budget and appropriations process where they have to examine each line in the budget and allocate funding program by program, with all the attendant lobbying by special interest groups and hometown Members who don’t want to see cuts to programs in their districts. This forces an issue that needs to be forced. But there’s no finesse, no compassion, no special considerations to these cuts. It’s a HULK SMASH BUDGET TO BITS moment. It’s not good governance.
We need to get back to basics when it comes to government spending. For one thing, we have a revenue problem. There is not enough money coming in to fuel government. At some point, tax policy needs to change and it’s going to hurt when it happens. However, taxes are the price we pay for living in a civil society and everyone – individuals and corporations alike – need to remember that. The other thing we need is a return to regular order in the budget and appropriations process. We have not had a budget resolution (the document that sets spending levels for a fiscal year) since 2009. We haven’t had regular appropriations bills (the laws that set spending allocations for a fiscal year) since then either. They government has been running on short term spending bills, each one doling out less money than the last one, for years now. Agencies often have no idea how they’ll be operating from one month to the next and they have no control over what will happen to them. I consider it gross negligence on the part of Congress, a failure to attend to their most fundamental responsibility as lawmakers. And the whole reason they do this is political. They prefer to act furtively, creeping along in the shadow of polling data, making choices based on what’s best for their hopes for a majority, not on what’s best for the nation as a whole. They have lost sight of the common good and instead focus on politics as team sport. Democrats want Democrats to win. Republicans want Republicans to win. But no one is winning. Instead, we have a 24 news cycle that promote ideology and a governing body that has lost sight of the big picture – the picture of America that exists outside the Beltway and can’t pronounce Qunnipiac.
I don’t know how any of this will turn out. I do know that one of my Senators is the Chair of the Appropriations Committee and my Representative is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. They’ll be hearing my plea to use regular process for setting spending going forward. I encourage you to ask your elected officials to pass a budget resolution and appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2014 as well.