Time to sequester the hype

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SEATTLE — It’s going to be devastating, brutal, eviscerating.

We’re in uncharted waters. We’re plunging off a cliff. We’re taking a meat ax to our own country.

These are words used this past week by the president, members of Congress and interest groups to describe the federal budget cuts set to begin this Friday.

“Not one minute — one second — will I stop,” was how Winston Churchill, I mean Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, responded the other day when a defense contractor asked him to fight these budget cuts.

Criminals will be let go, President Obama warned. Other cabinet officials foretold a sort of hellscape of forest fires, workplace deaths and insufferable lines at the airport.

If we could figure a way to levy a tax on hype, the nation’s budget problems surely would be behind us.

What we’re seeing play out is Exhibit B for why the federal balance sheet is always out of whack. We don’t have the stomach for even modest cutbacks in government services.

It’s the same as the attitude about higher taxes. (The freakout about that, during the fiscal-cliff showdown two months ago, was Exhibit A.)

Now it’s an $85 billion scheduled cut in federal spending, known as sequestration. That’s not nothing, but out of a $3.5 trillion annual budget, it is 2.4 percent. More precisely, out of the discretionary budget, where the cuts are concentrated, it amounts to a bit more than 5 percent.

These cuts may hurt, but still will only slow the rate of growth of overall spending. Combined with the taxes Congress raised in January, it’s all only a moderate step toward getting the deficits and debts under control.

But to hear our political leaders tell it, we’ve been infected by a disease of unknown origins for which they can’t fathom a cure.

“Sequestration must be prevented,” says a website the Democrats on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee put up to fight this policy that many of them voted to adopt. “It would severely harm the defense budget and other vital programs like transportation, infrastructure and education.”

There’s no doubt across-the-board cutting is not a smart way to write a budget. But severe harm?

Military spending, which has doubled in a decade, will keep rising even if we do these budget cuts. Just not as fast as it would have.

Or take the U.S. Department of Transportation, an agency with a budget of $74.5 billion. The cuts will trim that by $1 billion.

The new lower figure of $73.5 billion, though, still is higher than what DOT spent last year ($72.6 billion).

The cuts that hit closest — say, the $23 million loss to public schools here in Washington state — are painful but not sweeping.

I’m against any loss of money to our schools. But it’s a $10 billion system. The cut is two-tenths of one percent!

I guess this makes me an honorary tea partyer for a day.

But after years of record deficit spending, first for a massive buildup of the military-industrial complex and then to prop up the economy, now is probably not the moment the entire enterprise has reached its minimum possible size.

We can trim back by a few percent without cracking off and falling into the sea.

If we can’t, well, Congress can always declare a federal emergency later to send more borrowed money out the door.

We know they’re whizzes at that. No exaggeration needed.

Danny Westneat can be reached at westneat@seattletimes.com

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