This week, realizing that government actually does do some things people like, senators in both parties tried to undo some of the damage wrought by the sequester/fiscal cliff debacle. Their efforts were quickly undone, however, by the chronic dysfunction of the United States Congress.
Attempts were made to restore White House tours, maintain an efficient number of meat inspectors, keep up sane staffing of airport control towers, provide tuition help for members of the armed forces, undo cuts to military maintenance and take back many of the other across-the-board cuts that came about when the lawmakers failed to avert the $85 billion in automatic reductions that kicked in on March 1. In the end, though, fixing even the most idiotic cuts was put off so that yet another irresponsible political move could be avoided: shutting down the government.
A stopgap spending bill must be approved by March 27 to keep the federal government in business. The fixes to the sequester cuts came in the form of more than 125 amendments that senators wanted to tack onto the spending measure. Squabbling over all those changes would have thrown 125 wrenches into the legislative machine and pretty much guaranteed a government shutdown.
For once, good sense prevailed and most of the amendments were withdrawn. However, that still leaves the mounting wreckage that is being created by the sequester. Furloughed defense workers, air travelers, poor people getting food assistance, families visiting national parks, students needing loans and more and more Americans who benefit one way or another from government services will feel increasing pain and aggravation the longer lawmakers put off developing a more intelligent budget plan.
Still, there is modest good news. The combination of the tax increase for wealthy people that arrived on Jan. 1, the March 1 budget cuts and the reductions made by President Obama and Congress in 2011 has resulted in a $4-trillion reduction in the deficits that lie ahead in the next 10 years. Both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner say that, for now, the deficit is not the looming problem that it was.
This good news could be better, though. Yes, our leaders in Washington achieved the goal they set for themselves, which was to cut the borrowing by $4 trillion. Unfortunately, they did not do it in a way that is smart or sustainable. Across-the-board cuts are imprecise. They hit the parts of government spending that are least problematic and least expensive while doing nothing about the two entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicare – that are only going to gobble up more and more of the budget in the years to come.
Plus, a big chunk of that $4 trillion was the product of two gimmicks gone awry. The first gimmick came back in 2003 when the Republican-controlled Congress passed the so-called Bush tax cuts. Knowing that such a huge drop in tax revenue would very likely drive up the deficit, lawmakers put an expiration date on the tax reduction. That expiration date came on Jan. 1 this year, which was the only way Obama was able to wrest a tax hike on the rich from the anti-tax Republicans who found themselves boxed in by their own deadline.
The second gimmick was the ticking time bomb of the across-the-board cuts that Obama and Boehner agreed to in 2011. At the time, they were sure the scheme was so draconian that it would force all sides to agree on a more reasonable budget bargain. They failed to factor in the compromise-shunning tea party Republicans for whom draconian cuts are a mere starting point in the radical downsizing of government. They were eager to leap off the fiscal cliff.
As long as the ideological deadlock remains, gimmicks may be the only option lawmakers have to lurch vaguely in the right direction, but it is a terrible way to govern the country that is supposed to be the world’s shining example of democracy. Conservatives may have to adjust their mantra that government is the problem. In fact, self-government seems to be our biggest headache.
[For the Record, 8:03 a.m. March 21: An earlier version of this post said the combination of a tax increase for wealthy people on Jan. 1, budget cuts on March 1 and reductions made by President Obama and Congress in 2011 resulted in a $4-billion reduction in federal deficits over 10 years. The correct figure is $4 trillion.]