‘Sequester’ still looks silly, as expected

(This editorial is reprinted from USA Today, where it was first published.)

Guest Editorial
In the month since the much-feared federal budget “sequester” began, the world hasn’t ended. In fact, there has been little impact of any kind, other than on the credibility of President Barack Obama’s administration for issuing a string of dire warnings that have proved hollow.

But the sequester was designed to be stupid and painful — a device so awful it would force Democrats and Republicans to agree on budget cuts in order to avoid it. Now that they’ve failed, it’s a safe bet that the pinch will eventually be felt and that pressure will ratchet up as time goes by.

Many agencies spent March simply planning how to meet their targets, leaving officials to cram a year full of spending cuts — 5.3 percent for domestic agencies and 7.8 percent for the Pentagon — into six months.

Some of the impact was announced early, such as the decision not to deploy a carrier task force to the Persian Gulf, and to cut the flying time for Navy air wings.

Other effects are beginning to pop up. The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will close air traffic control towers at 149 smaller airports and furlough controllers at larger ones. How bad will that be for the flying public? The first towers only began to close Sunday.

Ditto for the Pentagon, where military personnel are exempt, but civilian workers will have to take almost three weeks of unpaid leave — an echo of what has gone on in the private sector since 2008. Disruptive or merely inconvenient? We’ll find out.

Federal courtrooms will also feel the impact, and because the Constitution explicitly bars reducing judges’ salaries, nonjudicial personnel will probably have to take deeper cuts to compensate. Will that mean shutting down federal courtrooms when marshals aren’t available to secure them? We’ll see.

When the government shut down in the winter of 1995-1996 during a standoff between congressional Republicans and former President Bill Clinton, the president could exempt agencies and personnel that protected lives and property (which Obama cannot do today). Even so, the parts of the government that did close back then were enough to anger Americans, who were frustrated to find they couldn’t renew passports or visit national parks. Republicans eventually folded in disarray.

The sad part of this is not that government has to spend less. In an era of unprecedented federal debt, that’s a plus. Spending can be cut. Just not without some pain, and not with a plan that requires all things to be cut rather than focusing cuts on the least valuable programs.

Congress and the White House exempted some programs when they finalized the original deal, and the spending bill they agreed to last month to keep the government open to Sept. 30 spared some vital functions — food inspections, for example. But not enough. Nor does the sequester seriously address the major spending driver: health-care costs.

The best outcome would be for the sort of anger that forced Congress and the White House to reopen the government in 1996 to push Congress and the White House back to the table on a realistic budget deal this year. The outlines of that deal have been obvious for too long: Trim entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, overhaul the hopelessly inefficient and corrupt tax code to bring in more money, and cut defense and domestic programs with a scalpel instead of an ax.

That’s just something to keep in mind if you end up standing in long lines at the passport office or at airport checkpoints as the sequester slowly kicks in. It’s a sad day when the only way to get politicians to do the right thing is to make Americans furious.