The all-pain, no-gain ‘sequester’

President Obama spoke about the impact the sequester would have for the defense industry and its workers during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

At a forum held by the Univision broadcasting network in September, President Obama said the most important lesson he’d learned in his first term was that “you can’t change Washington from the inside; you can only change it from the outside.” That helps explain why he has issued a barrage of public statements and made a slew of appearances in the past week aimed at persuading congressional Republicans to cancel looming across-the-board cuts in federal spending, rather than meeting with congressional leaders to hammer out a deal.

The parade of horribles trotted out by Obama — criminals going free, airlines snarled by delays, and “critical investments” in security, schools and research being gutted — has yet to change the GOP’s stance, however. At this point there’s little doubt that the “sequester,” as the cuts are called, will go into effect Friday, even though most lawmakers from both parties agree there are far better ways to reduce the deficit. What’s worse, the cuts will do little or nothing to shore up Washington’s fiscal house.

Republicans like to say Washington has a spending problem, but they confuse the current recession-driven budget gap with the long-term, structural issues. The titanic deficits of Obama’s first term are already shrinking, and the gap will continue to narrow as the economy regains strength. But even vigorous economic growth won’t solve the longer-term fiscal problems caused by the ever-increasing cost of healthcare entitlements such as Medicare and by an aging population that will require fewer workers to support more retirees. That’s why Washington needs to adopt a plan that phases in solutions to the long-term problems as the economy grows stronger.


That’s not what the sequester will do. Instead, it will reduce discretionary spending by about $85 billion over the next seven months. The cuts will trim the current year’s deficit by only 10%, and with entitlements largely spared from the ax, the reductions will have no effect on the long-term fiscal problems. What’s more, because the sequester hits almost every federal account equally, rather than targeting the least essential ones, some valuable programs and the people who rely on them will be needlessly affected. In short, all pain, no gain.

The irony is that the sequester was designed to prod a hopelessly divided Congress to work out a smarter approach to its budget problems. Instead, a growing number of Republicans now believe that mindless cuts are the only kind they’ll ever obtain with Obama in the White House. And Obama has played into that belief by calling on Congress to replace the sequester not with reductions in low-priority programs but with higher taxes and lower farm subsidies. Such proposals have only obscured Obama’s larger and more important point, which is that Congress has to enact a plan to bring the deficit and the debt under control for the long term. Rather than cutting just for the sake of cutting, lawmakers need to recognize where the real problems are and deal with them.