The following is an op-ed that I wrote and KSL published on its site on March 5, 2013.
Of all the political crises coming out of Washington, D.C., in recent years, few demonstrate the dismal state of things like the sequester. The crisis we face is not just the dramatic growth of federal spending, but the inability of Democrats and Republicans in Washington to work together to figure out how to control it.
Worse, it appears President Barack Obama has decided to use the issue to hit Republicans. Instead of working with the GOP to find a solution, Obama instead has hit the campaign trail again to help his party re-take control of Congress in 2014. If Americans don’t understand the budget and sequestration, he will manufacture a crisis and turn it against Republicans.
Campaigning, not Governing
The president has, at best, misinformed the American public about what the automatic budget cuts, referred to as the sequester, mean. At worst, he has taken advantage of an issue the public does not understand to create a faux crisis. Look at those Republicans in Congress, he says. “What I can’t do is force Congress to do the right thing,” he said last week. “The American people may have the capacity to do that.”
And by “that,” he means restore Democratic control of Congress. So, rather than meet with Congressional leaders in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the sequester on March 1, Obama instead hit the campaign trail.
According to the The Washington Post, it matches a strategy decision made by Obama shortly after his re-election in 2012 to work to put Nancy Pelosi back as speaker of the House. If the president can’t persuade Republicans to his way of thinking, he’ll campaign to replace them.
As Ed Rogers put it in The Washington Post, “The president is most confident and fulfilled as a campaigner. He would rather travel the country and lead the permanent campaign, relying on his relative personal appeal, than take responsibility and govern.” For better or worse, the president has decided that if he cannot impose his will on Congress, he will try to persuade the American people to give him a majority in 2014.
Along with the campaigning has come a torrent of misinformation about the budget cuts that has journalists cringing.
- In a news conference Friday, President Obama said that janitors and security guards at the Capitol would get a pay cut. On the contrary, according to the Architect for the Capitol, which employs the janitors, Obama’s remarks are “not true.” The Washington Post, fact checking the president, gave him four Pinocchios, which is akin to saying his pants are on fire. Nothing in his statement was even close to being correct, reported the Post.
- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went on to CBS’ “Face the Nation” Feb. 24 to scare people with images of 40,000 teachers getting pink slips and children being squished into overcrowded classrooms. Duncan repeated this claim three times. Not so fast, said The Washington Post. The Department of Education couldn’t produce the name of a single school that was sending out pink slips. Another false claim from the Obama Administration, the Post says.
- Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius threatened in a letter that 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start. The Washington Post balked at that figure, too.
If Americans didn’t understand what sequester meant before Obama took to the campaign trail, we understood even less after.
The Elephant in the Room
This isn’t to say that Republicans haven’t done their part to spin sequester. Republicans in Congress regularly argue that the cuts to the budget are only 2.5 percent of the federal budget. This ignores the fact that programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps are largely untouched by the sequester, making the impact on other areas of the budget much more substantial. For example, defense spending was hit hard with a 13 percent cut to its budget. (Not that the budget of the Department of Defense couldn’t use a good look. For example, why do we still have military bases in Germany and Japan? Didn’t World War II end in 1945?)
Behind all of the spin and hot air, few Republicans and almost no Democrats in Washington are willing to address the elephant in the room: the cuts from sequestration don’t touch the major causes of U.S. spending growth. Faced with growing costs of health care, as well as the expensive new benefits endowed by the Affordable Care Act, the costs of America’s entitlements will continue to grow — unchecked by the sequester.
While Republicans have pressed for “smart” cuts in lieu of slashing spending by sequestration — for example, Utah’s two senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both proposed alternatives to the sequester — they have failed to organize a plan that can meet Democrats somewhere in the middle. Getting rid of the debt will require raising taxes or cutting benefits to, as Douglas Elmendorf puts it, “people who consider themselves to be in the middle class.” That, or a little of both.
The alternative is to do nothing until America can no longer ignore its spending habits. The sequester may not be the crisis that our politicians are threatening, but it foreshadows what will happen if we don’t find a way to fund the government programs we have created.
As the Bipartisan Policy Center puts it, after predicting that sequestration could cost as many as a million jobs over the next two years, “The lesson … is that we can expect much pain for little gain.” Whether its prediction that jobs will be lost is accurate remains to be seen