A Tale of Two Sequesters: The Washington Posts Misses The Point

Terrance Heath

For just a second, I mistook the Washington Post for Peggy Noonan. That’s how unbelievably out of touch with reality and the lives of ordinary Americans a recent Post article about the sequester is. The title of the article by David Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein pretty much says it all: "They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly, they were wrong." Oh, really?

This is a tale of two sequesters. From Washington’s vantage point, it might not seem that frightening. But on Main Street, where the sequester’s cuts hit hardest, it’s already scary and it only going to get scarier still.

Back in December 2008, George W. Bush was in the last days of his presidency, and Barack Obama was waiting in the wings. The country has just gone through financial crisis that left the economy in recession. Millions of Americans watched their wealth and retirement savings disappear, and their house values plummet overnight. Millions of "underwater" homeowners were facing foreclosure and eviction.

But, in a Wall Street Journal column titled "At Least Bush Kept Us Safe," Peggy Noonan let us know things weren’t all that bad, at least in her world. The Christmas lights of Northern Virginia told her so.

To drive through the suburbs of Northern Virginia is to marvel still at the widespread wealth, the mansions and mini-mansions that did not exist a quarter-century ago and that now thicken the woods and hills. It used to be sleepy here; it used to be horse farms. I remember looking at one of the new houses 22 years ago. As I explored the heavy, sprawling concrete basement, the agent said, "We think this would take a 40-megaton bomb." She meant it as a serious selling point. We were near Langley.

The other night, the big houses were strung with glittering white Christmas lights-not all different colors, as we do in other suburbs, but stately white-and from the Georgetown Pike, heading toward Great Falls, we saw a house with a big glass-walled living room that faced the street, and below it a glass-walled entrance room, and each had its own brightly decorated tree. "Two Christmas trees," murmured a companion, and it captured the air of prosperity and solid well-being of the area.

It reminded me: Government is our most reliable current and future growth industry, and the near suburbs of the capital are where those who run it, work it, lobby it, feed off it and finagle it live. "You have to go farther out to see the foreclosure signs," said a friend.

Steve M. of No More Mr. Nice Blog wrote at the time, it depends on what your definition of "safe" is. (And, for the record, Bush did not keep us "safe.")

As with Noonan’s column, the bold claim in Fahrentholt and Rein’s article depends on what your definition of "scary" is.

Get Out of Sequestration Fee Cards

From the beltway-focused perspective of the article, sequestration wasn’t so much a disaster as an inconvenience that was easily avoided by moving numbers around from one column to another.

Sequestration did hit, on March 1. And since then, the $85 billion budget cut has caused real reductions in many federal programs that people depend on. But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.

The Washington Post recently checked 48 of those dire predictions about sequestration’s impact. Just 11 have come true, and some effects are worse than forecast. But 24 predictions have not come to pass. In 13 cases, agencies said it is too soon to know.

So many predictions fell short because, in recent months, the administration and Congress did what was supposed to be impossible: They undid many of sequestration’s scariest reductions. In the process, this supposedly ironclad budget cut – ostensibly immune to political maneuvering – became a symbol that nothing in Washington is beyond politics.

In some cases, politicians transferred cuts from high-value programs to lower-value ones. Employee travel was limited. Maintenance deferred.

Even when cuts were required, Fahrenthold and Rein write that they didn’t cause much "real-world pain." After all, the Justice Department avoided furloughs "cutting" $300 million that had already expired, and another $45 million for housing non-existant detainees.

See? Not so bad, right? The sky didn’t fall – not in Washington, at least. Sequestration was a bit of a letdown in that regard, "Sequestration was intended to show there was no longer any escape from austerity in Washington," Fahrenthold and Rein write. Of course there was.

Get of of sequester free!Noonan, it turns out, was right about one important thing that Fahrenthold and Rein appear to have missed: "Government is our most reliable current and future growth industry, and the near suburbs of the capital are where those who run it, work it, lobby it, feed off it and finagle it live."

It’s also one of the ten most expensive cities to live in. It’s not the wealthiest area in America, but metro-Washington is home to eight of the eleven highest income counties in the U.S. That’s because this is where the federal government lives, and a lot of people who "run it, work it, feed off it and finagle it" – and make a lot of money doing so – live. (To an extent, it’s also a tale of two Washingtons — one that makes a good living lobbying, running, working and feeding off government; and one that serves the first, but doesn’t earn a livable wage doing so.)

That’s why sequestration was never going to going to cause much pain in and around the beltway. Every time is looked like Washington – or corporate interests who spend a lot of money to influence it – was about to feel the pain of sequestration, someone got the equivalent of a "Get Out of Sequestration Free" card.

It’s hardly any wonder that the impact of sequestration hasn’t hit Washington and its environs. The very people responsible for the sequester, and the people who lobby them, all call Washington home. And they aren’t about to let the impact of sequester hit too close to home, not when they can buy a "Get out of sequestration free" card.

"Real-World Pain"

Fahrenthold and Rein get one thing right. Sequestration is just austerity by another name. But their assertion that "Sequestration was intended to show there was no longer any escape from austerity in Washington," doesn’t quite ring true.

By now, we know that’s not how austerity works. Greece is a fine example. Despite slashing the minimum wage, reducing wages, slashing pensions, and even shutting down the country’s beloved public broadcast network, austerity hasn’t lowered Greece’s deficit. It has cut the income of 90 percent Greek households by 38 percent, driven unemployment to Depression-era levels, and spark a sharp increase in suicides. Meanwhile, not only do wealthy Greeks continue to avoid paying taxes, but Greece’s wealthiest citizens maintain their lavish lifestyles, untouched by the austerity measures driving thousands of ordinary Greeks to the streets in protest.

Meanwhile, here in the states, Wall Street and the wealthy are austerity’s biggest winners, and the impact of American style austerity in the form of sequestration does the most harm to the most vulnerable.

Cuts to education and social service programs mean that:

  • 600,000 mothers and children will lose WIC nutrition aid;
  • 70,000 low income children will lose Head Start;
  • Funding for 7,200 special education teachers, aides, and staff will be eliminated;
  • 125,000 low income families will lose rental housing vouchers;
  • 100,000 formerly homeless people will lose housing;
  • 30,000 children will be denied affordable child care;
  • 75,700 people with disabilities will no longer be served by Vocational Rehab;
  • 4 million seniors will no longer be served by "Meals on Wheels";
  • 373,000 adults with serious mental illness will no longer get treatment;

Communities of color will be hit particularly hard by $42.7 billion in cuts to vital programs and social services in the first seven-months of sequestration. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans — already burdened with disparities in employment, income, and health care — will bear the brunt of these reductions in services.

If you think that state will step in to fill these gaps, think again. In many cases states can’t step in. Federal funds flow into states and local government through services and agencies from housing authorities and state unemployment offices to local school districts and private companies. Sequestration means drastic reductions in the amount of federal dollars flowing into state and local budgets.

None of this is doing the economy any good either. The sequester is damaging the economy, and crippling an already wobbly "recovery" that hasn’t even reached most Americans. Already weakened by Republican obstruction that has blocked any aid to states at every turn, sequestration is crippling state economies. Americans are struggling to get by, because state governments aren’t doing enough to ensure economic security. Some of that may be due to lack of political will, but the reality in most state is that there are too few resources, and sequestration guarantees states will have even less to work with.

Businesses are slashing jobs as sequestration cuts dry up the river of government spending that supported many private sector jobs. As one business owner put it, "If you don’t have the cash flow, with a reduction of 25 percent of revenues you have to cut staff." The hit to federal spending and federal payrolls has a ripple effect in the private sector, which directly impacts businesses that supply or otherwise sell services to the government in one form or another. The impact of that ripple effect will probably last for the rest of the fiscal year, and probably beyond. Businesses without lobbyist to carve out exemptions for them will lose revenue, and workers will lose jobs.

Those who lose their jobs due to the sequester have another kick in the teeth coming. The sequester cuts unemployment compensation by 11 percent. So far, 800,000 jobless workers in 19 states have felt this impact of sequestration. That amounts to a sizable chunk taken out of weekly benefit checks for millions who are struggling to get by why looking for work. Even the unemployed can help the economy by spending money for goods and services. Thus sequestration means even less money re-entering the economy. As Robert Borosage wrote, the economy can’t recover if workers don’t. Sequestration ensures that many workers won’t recover.

If none of this counts as "real-world pain" I don’t know what does. Unless pain felt beyond metro-Washington is somehow less "real."

Conservatives promised us the sequester would help the economy, but it hasn’t. The sequester is having a negative impact on employment. Instead of reducing spending, sequestration has the effect of increasing spending. The hidden costs include slowed economic growth, and increased spending due to increased joblessness, etc.

What the Post’s reporters don’t emphasize is that the sequester hasn’t flamed out already. Sequestration is austerity on a long, slow burn, the longer it goes on, the more it destroys. It’s a slow-motion disaster that pummels the most vulnerable Americans with countless stealth cuts.

The truth about the sequester is that it didn’t have to happen. It was never intended to take effect. It was designed to be so incredibly stupid and damaging that Republicans and Democrats would devise a compromise to avoid the "fiscal cliff" (another man-made disaster). But that didn’t happen, because Republicans rejected any compromise on deficit reduction that included tax increases or that even closed a few of the one pecent’s favorite tax loopholes.

The sequester happened because many Republicans wanted it to happen. Many Republicans cheered the sequester’s cuts, and believe it’s drastic cuts were the right thing to do. Ultra-conservatives embraced the sequester as a means of achieving the kind of spending cuts they wanted, without having too many Republican fingerprints on budget axe.

More and more Americans are feeling the effect of the sequester. More and more American’s will feel the effect of the sequester. Most Americans disapprove of the sequester. As more Americans feel the effect of sequester, more of them will disapprove of it. More them will realize it didn’t have to happen, but conservatives preferred inflicting more economic pain on middle-class and low-income Americans to raising taxes on their wealthy patrons and corporate backers.

Maybe then the sequester will be "scary’ enough for Washington to take notice.

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