Now appearing: Sequester and America’s future
Another day, another outcry from President Barack Obama — this one in Newport News, Va. — about the parade of horribles that will arrive today when automatic federal spending cuts begin: air travel delays, weaker law enforcement, less money for defense contractors.
This daily rollout of White House warnings, and daily retorts from Republicans, may well be irritating more Americans than it persuades. Many among us who survived election 2012 in November, only to encounter the “fiscal cliff” brinkmanship of December, aren’t in the mood for yet another campaign immersion, this one rich with partisan rhetoric and sky-will-fall predictions.
For all of this acrimony, though, we should thank the president and his strident foes in Congress. With each blustery news cycle they are introducing us to America’s future … if they cannot come together on reforms to our government’s entitlement programs.
Come to think of it, this acrimony over what to cut by how much isn’t only the future we’ll have if federal spending and debt continue on their upward trajectory. This is what America’s present would be, nonstop, if Washington wasn’t already borrowing by the trillions from the Chinese government and other buyers of U.S. securities. Our debt, remember, grew by more than $1 trillion a year each of the last four years and, without a course correction, will grow by roughly $6 trillion to $9 trillion over the next decade.
The president isn’t focusing his speeches on how to fix entitlements that drive our toxic debt. Instead he wants to circumvent the so-called sequester of spending cuts that his White House suggested in 2011 and that, following approval by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, he signed into law.
Perplexing. We can’t know why Obama, the man with the most secure job in Washington, isn’t leading rescue efforts for entitlement programs, as he promised to do even before he took office four years ago. Because without that rescue, federal budgeting will be this week’s ugly exercise in perpetuity: constant Washington battles about what little the government can afford as resources shrink, or as taxing and borrowing rise, to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and, soon, Obamacare.
We wish the president would exploit his wealth of political capital and explain what he knows: You people enjoy all this talk about long customs lines and closures at national parks? Get used to it. Because unless we fix these programs, your future will be the bleak austerity that this sequester has me threatening.
His strategy instead is to provoke citizens into demanding that tax hikes on the wealthy replace the scheduled spending cuts. His speeches give the impression of a man exaggerating his arguments for exaggerated effect: Removing a comparatively small $85 billion from the final seven months of a $3.6 trillion budget just isn’t the biggest danger our republic will confront in this or any decade. Managed well, any family, business or government should be able to cut its budget by 2.4 percent in difficult times.
Unless, that is, the head of the family, business or government wants to make that reduction look suicidal. It’s telling that, as congressional Republicans prepare to give the president flexibility to pick and choose which spending to cut, the White House wants no such authority. Having it would undermine the message that the sequester is a GOP-inspired assault on Americans, and would expose Obama to criticism if his agency heads make unpopular choices. As The New York Times reported Tuesday: “White House budget officials are leery. If Congress grants the White House the authority to protect air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and national parks, the administration’s carefully devised high-pressure campaign that has been mounted for weeks could deflate.”
Far easier for the president to evoke that falling sky. Expect many more announcements like Tuesday’s from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: An unspecified number of ICE detainees being held for deportation have been released from custody. Cue the predictable keening from an ICE spokeswoman about “our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate …”
This scare-mongering could boomerang. Any American paying attention understands Republicans reluctantly accepted tax increases to end the fiscal-cliff standoff. University of Maryland economist Peter Morici calculates those changes eliminated 80 percent of the benefits of tax deductions — mortgage interest, state income taxes, local property taxes and the like — for wealthier households. Going back to that well won’t yield much. Now Democrats need to accept the sequester spending cuts they helped put on the calendar.
Or Democrats could help cancel these cuts before they slowly unfold in coming months. That would require them to help craft entitlement reforms.
This week’s rancor over spending cuts isn’t the future any of us wants. Barring overdue changes to entitlements, though, it’s the future we’ve got.