Double-talk is never in short supply in Washington. But as the axe of “sequestration” – the across-the-board spending cuts triggered by Congress’ failure to pass a long-term budget plan – begins to fall, self-contradiction and hypocrisy have reached heights unusual even for the Capitol.
Indeed, many of the same Congress members who welcomed sequestration as a way to force the president to cut spending are now protesting loudly when their pet programs feel the pain. Members who voted for the package that Speaker John Boehner said included “90 percent” of what Republicans wanted now claim that sequestration does not need to hurt very much and accuse the president of imposing cuts for political effect.
The reality is that sequestration was designed to cut both deeply and indiscriminately. Although it barely touches the two main deficit drivers – tax expenditures and entitlement spending – it was supposed to be sufficiently draconian and unacceptable to force action on those fronts, to compel agreement on a comprehensive budget plan along the lines of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission proposal or the budget agreements that produced four years of surpluses under President Bill Clinton.
Congress failed to produce such a plan, however, because Republicans refused to consider increasing revenues or closing special-interest loopholes. Today’s Republicans value their anti-tax ideology far more than the defense cuts that were supposed to drive them to the bargaining table. As sequestration approached, more and more of them said, “Bring it on.”
Now that the cuts are coming, members are scrambling, sometimes to apply Band-Aids, sometimes to insist that the president spare programs they favor. One day there is an outcry about reduced meat inspections, on another an insistence that tuition benefits for military personnel be restored, on another that air-traffic controllers be kept on duty in little-used airports. The latest uproar started two days ago. Federal Aviation Administration furloughs of air traffic controllers at large airports kicked in, delaying flights across the country – at Charlotte Douglas International Airport 31.2 percent of flights were delayed. My North Carolina colleague, Rep. Renee Ellmers, recently introduced a bill to reverse Medicare cuts for cancer treatment, calling the cuts an “unintended consequence” of sequestration. In fact, the 2 percent cuts were an intended and easily anticipated consequence of sequestration.
Congress has now passed appropriations bills for the remainder of 2013, locking in place the sequestration spending levels. Scattered provisions mitigate specific sequestration impacts, but the result often is to shift the cuts to equally important areas that aren’t in the news at the moment. Fort Bragg, adjacent to my district, now faces a furlough of civilian employees and a 34 percent cut in its operating budget. And sequestration comes on top of $1 trillion in cuts to domestic programs already adopted. Together, these cuts have driven major disease research off a cliff – fewer than 10 percent of proposals to fund heart disease, cancer and diabetes research are being funded – and slowed road and bridge construction to a snail’s pace.
I want to mitigate the harm as much as any member of Congress. But damage control is not a viable budget policy. Sequestration is a self-inflicted wound, unworthy of those who profess to govern. It is hypocritical and misleading, having imposed indiscriminate cuts on the administration, to pretend that the president can fix the problems with a flick of the wrist.
The remedy lies in a comprehensive budget agreement that puts revenues and all categories of spending on the table. The president’s budget reflects such an approach, going beyond the comfort zone of many of his political allies. A similar offer was spurned by Speaker Boehner and House Republicans in December, and sequestration ensued. It is a failure of historic proportions and it must be reversed.
David Price represents North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District.
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