Let's Go Sequestering!

If you’ve never lived there, Washington, D.C.,  seems like a pretty conservative place. Perhaps not politically. No — definitely not politically. Washington, D.C, is a place where conservatives go to die and common sense goes into a coma.

But it’s a place that doesn’t like new things. It adores tradition, pomp, ceremony, and old-fashioned, stuffy things like dinner parties and cotillions. In recent years, this traditional kind of cultural conservatism has run smack into modern American celebrity hysteria. It says something about the influence of Washington traditionalism that you don’t see politicians dying their hair purple or wearing a lot of bling, but you do see famous performers toning down their act some.

So the reaction to the coming sequester, where 10% of all federal spending is going to be lopped off the top on March 1 except for a few sacred cows like Medicare and Social Security, is not unexpected. They hate it. Not just the politicians, but all the lobbyists, lawyers, think tankers, consultants, image makers, image destroyers, do-gooders, and anti-do-gooders in town can’t stand the darn thing.

About the only people in town who are embracing the meat cleaver wholeheartedly are those back-bench, Tea Party butchers in the Republican Party who think it’s long past due to do something about trillion-dollar deficits besides soak the rich. If it means channeling Lizzie Borden and taking an ax to the whole shebang, so be it.

Other Republicans, at least on the surface, are expressing a sad resignation that the sequester is going to become a reality. Politically, this is necessary because once these cuts begin to take effect, the American people are going to get a taste of what it will be like to live without some of the things they’ve been putting on their children’s credit card these last few decades. It is not going to be easy and painless getting government spending under control and, eventually, balancing the budget. If it were easy, politicians would have done it already. The pols are not in the business of deliberately inflicting pain on their constituents, and once these cuts start being felt, there will likely be some anger.

But most of the howls of protest will come from entrenched interest groups whose ox is being gored. It is a given that a constituency for even the silliest, the most unnecessary government program will fight like hell to maintain — or increase — spending levels for their fiefdoms. We will hear a lot about the impact of these cuts on widows, old folks, the poor, the sick, and, most especially, women and children over the next few weeks and how the cuts could easily be restored if we just taxed the rich a little more and made them pay their “fair share.”

Sadly, some of the rants will be based on truth. Every discretionary federal program will be affected. Don’t like long wait times to get through the gropers’ gauntlet at the airport? Cutbacks at TSA will likely result in a big increase in the time it takes to get through security. Reductions in air traffic control spending could mean your plane being stuck on the tarmac for a while, or circling high above the airport during peak flying hours.

The problems with sequestration are legion, but it boils down to the fact that sequestered monies are coming out of the smallest parts of the budget. With big-ticket items like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and Medicaid all being exempt, what’s left amounts to about one fifth of the total budget, minus defense spending. Taken individually, air traffic control, food safety, export assistance, and the cost of running the White House and Congress — all these and most other discretionary programs have budgets that amount to a few hundredths of a percent of the total federal budget. With 50% of the cuts coming from defense, that still leaves around $45 billion that has to be shaved from everything else, whether the program is a bloated waste of taxpayer money or vital to the health and safety of American citizens.

Indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts can only be described as irresponsible governance. While no one except the president and Democrats are arguing that the amount of the sequester isn’t necessary — many are saying it’s too small –allowing the sequester to take effect is a tacit admission of abject failure of leadership. Collectively, the entire Congress should be fired for allowing this state of affairs to reach a point of no return.

There has been some talk in recent days of a Republican plan to give department heads and agency managers more flexibility in what they can cut. Indeed, there is always the suspicion that some cuts are made not so much because they are necessary, but because, as National Journal‘s Matthew Cooper points out, managers use the “Firemen First” principle of budget cutting — making sure cuts are made to popular or vital programs, deliberately ratcheting up the pain as a PR gambit to get Congress to restore the cuts.

That isn’t likely to work this time. And, as Cooper says, perhaps it is just as well:

At a time when Americans are convinced that foreign aid is a significant part or the budget—the median answer in one survey in 2010 was 25 percent of the budget—it’ll be a good object lesson for people to see that government means planes landing safely, meat being inspected, Yellowstone being kept open. Yes, most of what the government does is write checks and defend us, “an insurance company with an Army,” so the saying goes. But it does a lot more.

This civics lesson may be beneficial for several reasons. Americans talk a good “small government” game, but when faced with losing a pet program or a subsidy, they are just as likely to scream bloody murder. If we are ever to live within our means, we must collectively decide what it is we want government to do, and then be willing to cough up the tax money to get it done. No more allowing politicians to bestow goodies on us that we never asked for, and may not even need. A revolution in attitude toward government is needed, and the sequester has the potential to start a national conversation about the role of government in society and the limits that must be placed on federal power if we are to save ourselves from a debt Armageddon.

This is not to demonize government. It certainly doesn’t mean we should love it either. You don’t have to love government to want to make it work efficiently, prudently — conservatively. Nor should one have to hate the government in order to restrain it.

Recognizing that the federal government is out of control, that it is taking on functions for which it was never intended to perform and cannot competently manage does not make one an anti-government zealot. That is a political attack, and not a rational argument. Wanting to place limits on where government can intrude in our lives does not mean that you hate the poor, or the children, or anyone else. If the sequester does nothing else, it may reveal in stark relief government functions that truly are necessary and those that might not be.

And wouldn’t that be a revelation to both liberals and conservatives.

You don’t have to be wedded to an 18th century form of government to discuss responsibly limiting federal power in the 21st century. Nor should the challenges of the 21st century make us lose sight of the founding 18th century principles upon which the American experiment in self-governance has rested.  We are a big, urbanized, industrial, 21st century democracy of 300 million people. In that sense, a big country needs a big government. It needs government to be big enough and strong enough to stand up to multi-national corporations and trillion-dollar banks and not allow them to rob us, poison us, or oppress us.  It needs to be big enough to enforce the concept of equal justice for all Americans. It needs to be big enough to protect us from threats inside and outside the country. And it needs to be big enough to care for those tens of millions of citizens who either can’t — or won’t — care for themselves.

We’ve left the details to Congress and have paid for that inattention by being saddled with crushing debt, shrinking currency, and an expansion of federal power that threatens the very liberty that those 18th century principles were designed to protect. The sequester may ultimately reveal that at least some of what we’ve asked government to do, we are better able to do ourselves.

That, alone, might make all the pain caused by these willynilly cuts worth it.