Think about that. Worst case? That a government drowning in debt should cut back by 2.2 percent — and the country survives. That a government now borrowing 35 cents of every dollar it spends reduces that borrowing by two cents “and nothing bad really happens.” Oh, the humanity!
A normal citizen might think this a good thing. For reactionary liberalism, however, whatever sum our ever-inflating government happens to spend today (now double what Bill Clinton spent in his last year) is the Platonic ideal — the reduction of which, however minuscule, is a national calamity.
Or damn well should be. Otherwise, people might get the idea that we can shrink government, and live on.
Hence the president’s message. If the “sequestration” — automatic spending cuts — goes into effect, the skies will fall. Plane travel jeopardized, carrier groups beached, teachers furloughed.
The administration has every incentive to make the sky fall, lest we suffer that terrible calamity — cuts the nation survives. Are they threatening to pare back consultants, conferences, travel and other nonessential fluff? Hardly. It shall be air-traffic control. Meat inspection. Weather forecasting.
A 2011 GAO report gave a sampling of the vastness of what could be cut, consolidated and rationalized in Washington: 44 overlapping job training programs, 18 for nutrition assistance, 82 (!) on teacher quality, 56 dealing with financial literacy, more than 20 for homelessness, etc. Total annual cost: $100 billion-$200 billion, about two to five times the entire domestic sequester.
Are these on the chopping block? No sir. It’s firemen first. That’s the phrase coined in 1976 by legendary Washington Monthly Editor Charlie Peters to describe the way government functionaries beat back budget cuts. Dare suggest a nick in the city budget and the mayor immediately shuts down the firehouse. The DMV back office stacked with nepotistic incompetents remains intact. Shrink it and no one would notice. Sell the firetruck — the people scream and the city council falls silent about any future cuts.
After all, the sequester is just one-half of 1 percent of GDP. It amounts to 1.4 cents on the dollar of nondefense spending, 2 cents overall.
Because of this year’s payroll tax increase, millions of American workers have had to tighten their belts by precisely 2 percent. They found a way. Washington, spending $3.8 trillion, cannot? If so, we might as well declare bankruptcy now and save the attorneys’ fees.
The problem with sequestration, of course, is that the cuts are across the board and do not allow money to move between accounts. It’s dumb because it doesn’t discriminate.
Fine. Then change the law. That’s why we have a Congress. Discriminate. Prioritize. That’s why we have budgets. Except that the Democratic Senate hasn’t passed one in four years. And the White House, which proposed the sequester in the first place, had 18 months to establish rational priorities among accounts — and did nothing.
When the GOP House passed an alternative that cut where the real money is — entitlement spending — President Obama threatened a veto. Meaning, he would have insisted that the sequester go into effect — the very same sequester he now tells us will bring on Armageddon.
Good grief. The entire sequester would have reduced last year’s deficit from $1.33 trillion to $1.24 trillion. A fraction of a fraction. Nonetheless, insists Obama, such a cut is intolerable. It has to be “balanced” — i.e., largely replaced — by yet more taxes.
Which demonstrates that, for Obama, this is not about deficit reduction, which interests him not at all. The purpose is purely political: to complete his Election Day victory by breaking the Republican opposition.
At the fiscal cliff, Obama broke — and split — the Republicans on taxes. With the sequester, he intends to break them on spending. Make the cuts as painful as possible, and watch the Republicans come crawling for a “balanced” (i.e., tax hiking) deal.
In the past two years, House Republicans stopped cold Obama’s left-liberal agenda. Break them now and the road is open to resume enactment of the expansive, entitlement-state liberalism that Obama proclaimed in his second inaugural address.
But he cannot win if “nothing bad really happens.” Indeed, he’d look both foolish and cynical for having cried wolf. His incentive to deliberately make the most painful and socially disruptive cuts possible (say, oh, releasing illegal immigrants from detention) is enormous. And alarming.
Dr. Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post.