The Sequester Question

To hear the president tell it, this “sequester” business is darned scary.
According to the president’s account, if those rich-folk-loving Republicans don’t accede to his demand for more taxes there is absolutely nothing he can do to prevent “about a trillion dollars” of “arbitrary budget cuts.” This will be about the worst thing that ever happened, the president explained on Tuesday, as this “meat cleaver approach” will hinder the nation’s military readiness, “eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” reduce the hours worked by Border Patrol agents, furlough agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, force prosecutors to let criminals run amok, cause further delays at airports, lay off thousands of teachers, cause tens of thousands of parents to “scramble to find childcare for their kids,” and leave hundreds of thousands of Americans without health care. The president also noted, as a group of uniformed emergency responders sat grimly behind him, that “their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded.”
None of which, the president seemed quite pleased to report, is in any way his fault. It’s all because Congress passed a law which forced itself to agree on a plan to cut $4 trillion of deficits or face this dire outcome. Alas, the president sadly noted, “They haven’t come together and done their jobs, so as a consequence, we’ve got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen next Friday.” Being a reasonable sort of fellow, the president assured those emergency responders and the rest of the nation that he would have preferred a “balanced approach” of tax hikes and “smart cuts” to “spending that we don’t need” and “programs that aren’t working,” but that he can’t bring himself to sign any bill that doesn’t further soak the rich because it “would hurt the middle class.”
This makes the sequester seem so frightening, and the president so sensible, that one might not notice that it’s all nonsense.
The president was the one who cooked up the sequester plan, as the formerly revered Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has documented, and anyone with a “Schoolhouse Rocks” level of education knows that the bill Congress passed didn’t become a law until the president signed it. Furthermore, the Republican-controlled House has passed two attempts to undo the sequestration agreement but could not get them through the Democrat-controlled Senate, and a series of more sensible cuts could still be quickly agreed upon if the president were willing to compromise his redistributionist principles.
One should also note that none of the dire consequences that the president describes will come to pass unless he wills it, as the executive branch will decide how the mandatory cuts to each agency are enacted. Competent chief executives of many enterprises have made similar cuts in their organizations without calamity, so the smartest president ever should be able to do the same.
Nor is there any reason to believe that the consequences will be so dire as the president claims. The defense cuts are worrisome, but not nearly so much as a country that will believe Barack Obama’s accusation that it is the Republicans who are eager to undermine the nation’s military readiness. Those job-creating “investments” in energy are creating jobs at a cost of $4.8 million a piece, a rate that will bankrupt the country long before it reaches full employment. Border Patrol administrators rather than agents could have their hours cut, although that might have the unintended consequence of making the border more secure. Teachers and emergency responders will still be generously funded at the state and local level, assuming the economy doesn’t collapse under the weight of the national debt. Better prioritizing could prevent the other horrific outcomes, as well, although we’d still be treated to sob stories about the poor bureaucrats tossed out of their plush offices by the heartless Republicans.
If the president truly believes that there is “money we don’t have to spend” and “government programs that don’t work” he could easily arrange an agreement with the Republican leadership to cut those, but so far he has failed to identify anything in government that he doesn’t want. During the past campaign he made clear that subsidies to the multi-million dollar Sesame Street producers were sacrosanct, so it is hard to imagine anything else the federal government is doing that the president won’t deem essential.
No cuts will be entirely pain-free, of course, but a failure to get the government’s spending within the nation’s ability to pay for them will soon wind up hurting a great deal more. The president should know this, but he seems confident that the Republicans will wind up with the blame and he’ll avoid the scariest consequence of all.

— Bud Norman