It’s Back: The Budget Nightmare

Robert Borosage

It’s back.  Another manufactured budget crisis.  Another threatened government shutdown.  Another failed negotiation.  And, like Freddy Krueger springing from your nightmares to lay waste with his bladed glove, another Nightmare on Elm Street round of sequestration looming when the final, last-minute deal is cut.

Sequestration is one of those high-tone legal words designed to be opaque.  What it means is mindless, automatic, across-the-board cuts in both domestic and military programs that do not discriminate between the vital and the useless, the muscle and the fat, the starved and the bloated.  It is the horror movie version of budget discipline:  just lay waste to everything in reach.

The simple truth is that sequestration should never have been adopted and should be repealed.  Immediately.  Completely.  Period.  The following outlines only some of its inanity.  If you’d like to join in sending this message to your legislator, go here to learn about a December 12 call-in sponsored by many groups, including the Campaign for America’s Future.  Here are three simple truths about sequestration

 1.  Sequestration cuts were designed to be repellant

Sequestration cuts were designed to be so repellant and so wrong-headed that both parties in polarized Washington would at least be able to agree to get rid of them. So they agreed that if they didn’t agree on a different path, there would be an automatic cut of roughly $100 billion a year for ten years out of the parts of the budget Congress is supposed to appropriate annually (excluding guaranteed programs like Social Security and Medicare and interest on the national debt). Equal amounts would be automatically slashed from domestic discretionary programs – everything from education to child nutrition to food and drug inspections to the FBI — and from the military.

 

In theory, this would never happen.  The Democrats would blister at cuts in programs for the vulnerable; the Republicans not abide mindless cuts of the military.  So the threat would force the parties to agree on something less inane and destructive.

Got that wrong.  Turns out the Tea Party wrecking crew doesn’t care if infants are deprived of nutrition or if soldiers are deprived of training or schools are shuttered.  Sequestration went from abhorrent to embraced. Now, Iowa Senator Chuck “death panel” Grassley says, “sequestration is working.”  Ohio Rep. Jordan says sequestration “has been one of the good things that has happened,” pledging for the House Republicans that “we’re not going to break the sequester cap.”  The House Republican budget calls for sustaining sequestration levels of cuts, but taking them from domestic programs, not the military.  The parties won’t agree on that so the mindless cuts go on.

2.  Sequestration offends reality:  Out of control spending isn’t the problem; mass unemployment is the problem.

Sequestration cuts assume that spending is out of control and must be slashed with a meat axe.   But federal spending has been falling, not rising.  And the deficit has fallen below the targets that sequestration cuts were supposed to force.

Instead of helping the economy, sequestration cuts cost jobs and weaken the faltering recovery.   We are five years into a lost decade of high unemployment, stagnant wages and a declining middle class.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, an institutionalized voice for balanced budgets, estimates that getting rid of sequestration in FY 2014 would generate 1.6 million jobs and boost the recovery dramatically.

 3.  Sequestration cuts are cruel and indiscriminate

Americans may feel the pain, but few know the source.  Sequestration cuts have had the ugly effect they were designed to have.  They have hurt the most vulnerable and the most valuable, while ignoring the most indefensible.  57,000 poor preschoolers shut out of Head Start – while the tax dodges that GE pay nothing in taxes went untouched.  Shutting kids out of Head Start will cost taxpayers more in the future – in truancy, school dropouts, depression, and jails.

The elderly who are homebound get fewer visits from Meals on Wheels – while billionaires still enjoy lower tax rates than their secretaries.  Budget cuts leave the poorest schools with even more crowded classrooms, while subsidies keep flowing to big oil and agribusiness companies.  Scientists have been forced to cancel research projects, and fire researchers who search for work abroad.  Low-income families are denied housing vouchers, insuring that more children are left without a secure place to sleep at night.

 The Full Horror Show:  Will Congress end up continuing the nightmare

The real nightmare for Americans is that Tea Party Republicans are so perverse that the cruel inanity of sequestration could survive the budget negotiation.

Republicans refuse flat out to consider closing overseas corporate tax havens or shutting down billionaire tax breaks.  So there will be no “grand bargain” in the budget negotiations.  The two parties disagree strongly on how much to spend and where to spend it.  So the budget negotiators are unlikely to come up with an agreement by their mid-December deadline.   That will lead to backroom negotiations to avoid another government shutdown, scheduled for January if no agreement is reached.

This time, Republicans don’t want a shutdown.  They plummeted in the polls in the last shutdown, and they don’t want to get in the way of the self-inflicted wounds Democrats are suffering from the botched launch of health care reform.  They’ll push for a deal that shields the military from sequestration cuts and offer to “pay for” that by taking more out of domestic programs or cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits.  If Democrats don’t agree, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a continuing resolution cobbled together that funds government at or near sequestration levels.  Like the monsters in old horror pictures, sequestration may be destructive, mindless, and abhorrent but somehow continue to haunt us.

And of course that is the lesson of Nightmare on Elm Street:  “Whatever you do…. DON’T FALL ASLEEP.”  Join the effort to get Congress to do the sensible and free us of the sequestration horrors.

 

 

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