Symposium

The Sequester: Doom or Dumb?

What do tonight's looming budget cuts hold in store for America? We polled our contributors for the answer.

By 3.1.13

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Sequestration is a “Frankenstein’s monster,” a “doomsday machine!” So warned one Christopher Matthews last week as he contemplated the impending fall of the budgetary meat cleaver. The Christian faithful are warned that no one knows the day—or hour—of the end, but in this case we know the precise minute: tonight, March 1, 2013, at 11:59 pm.

While we can perhaps all agree that Mr. Matthews’ bloviations contain a bit of uncharacteristic hysteria, there are plenty of more temperate questions surrounding the sequester. What exactly will happen tonight? Will the cuts impact our economy? Our military readiness? Should they fall disproportionately on the Pentagon? We rounded up a few bright lights of the Spectator and Washington commentariat, and teased out these answers (which will be cross-posted on our blog throughout the day):

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform:

Obama was certain that this sequester -- falling equally on Pentagon spending and non-defense spending -- would scare Republicans to vote for a tax hike to replace their spending cuts. He had watched a handful of “Republican spokesmen” on CNN fainting at the thought of defense spending increasing too slowly, and unconcerned with the projected annual taxation jumping from $2.4 trillion to $5.0 trillion over the decade.

Almost to a man and woman the GOP knows that the Pentagon, along with all government programs, can afford to grow more slowly than Obama had planned.

So now Obama is reduced to the equivalent of denouncing his own baby as too ugly to present in public.

Quin Hillyer, American Spectator Senior Editor:

Let's look at the numbers. A good starting point is 2008, the last full year before Barack Obama pushed "stimulus" funds through a Democratic Congress -- but after domestic discretionary spending had already risen a stupefying 74 percent in just the eight years from 2000 to 2008. (All numbers come from OMB historical tables, Table 5.6.) That spending category in 2008 was $494 billion. In 2014, current estimates place domestic discretionary spending at $550 billion -- a 12% increase, which outstrips inflation. Surely, there's plenty of fat in there somewhere.

On the other hand, defense spending in 2008 was $686 billion. Current estimates for 2014 push that down to $558 billion -- an 18 percent cut even before taking inflation into account. When something is being cut that much, that fast, the "meat cleaver" approach is especially worrisome because it really does threaten to slice into sinew and bone. This is particularly problematic for national defense, which is the first and most important obligation of the national government.

Jeffrey Lord, American Spectator Contributing Editor:

This is an exercise in demonstrating how America cannot live without Big Government. Take a good listen to all these supposed horror stories. Teachers pink-slipped, prison doors opened, no more help getting a job. One of my favorites, per the Washington Post is the horror that will be the cut in funding for the “STOP Violence Against Women Program.”

This gem flows, I believe, from the Clinton era, President Clinton signing VAWA, as it was known, into law in 1994. In typical liberal style, with X number of cowed Republicans going along for the ride, the act set up an office in the bureaucracy (the Justice Department in this case), hired more bureaucrats, and got bucks -- some $1.6 billion in the day.

Since that day, as is the pattern with these things, this has become the typical liberal sacred cow. To even whisper against this is to commit heresy.

Ross Kaminsky, Senior Fellow at the Heartland Institute and American Spectator contributor:

The question of “who will be blamed politically” assumes that the public will see sequestration as a negative. I suspect that, at least after the first few days, that assumption will be invalid. It will not turn into a question of the parties trying to blame each other, but rather of Republicans taking credit for not allowing it to be replaced with tax hikes. They should be careful not to crow over it as great policy because it’s not and because it was Obama’s idea. Instead, they need to make clear that Republicans made the best of yet another terrible situation created by this president’s remarkable unwillingness and inability to lead.

Republicans also should talk about the sequester in very measured tones, calmly putting it in the perspective it deserves:

  • Actual cuts to spending this year will be a bit more than 1% of the federal budget
  • Defense spending will still increase by over $100 billion over the coming decade
  • Federal spending and the national debt still grow enormously in the next decade
  • Claims that sequestration is a massive cut to government spending rely on a definition of the word “cut” that no rational person would accept
  • To avoid this sort of thing in the future, it is time to get serious about entitlement reform

Jim Antle, Editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation:

The end of the world is upon us. Soon the federal government will start to increase its spending more slowly than originally planned. The numbers are terrifying. Spending will rise about $44 billion less this year due to sequestration, with future “cuts” bringing the total to $85 billion.

It is very difficult to see how our $15 trillion economy will survive this retrenchment, forcing government programs to make due on a more than $3.5 trillion federal budget. If this dangerous trend continues, federal spending will increase by $2 trillion over the next decade instead of $2 trillion.

By now it should be obvious that I am being sarcastic. But the media outrage about the sequester is wildly disproportionate to the numbers that are actually involved. We cannot seriously address Washington’s unfunded liabilities if non-cuts of this magnitude cannot even be contemplated.

G. Tracy Mehan, consultant and adjunct professor at GMU School of Law:

So the question becomes “Is the GOP up to the challenge?” Speaker Boehner does yeoman work, but he is not a natural front guy. His recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was too conflicted as to whether the coming cuts were good or bad (right answer: good!). Some have suggested he needs a permanent, public spokesman like Jay Carney at the White House to make news, send and stay on message. Moreover, we need to see more of Paul Ryan and a bullpen of attractive, articulate men and women from the respective caucuses working different aspects of the fiscal argument. Is there a War Room set up for messaging and quick response? You get the idea.

This is a moment of truth for the party of Lincoln. It has to make sequestration work even if it goes the way of the Whigs who, by the way, had a greater impact on the ultimate shape of American government and society than the Jacksonians.  

John Tabin, American Spectator contributor:

Looking for a surefire weight-loss plan? I've got a plan that is guaranteed to reduce your weight by one pound. Now, you may think this isn't much of weight-loss plan, but maybe it's worth doing anyway; after all, it can't be a particularly grueling regimen if you're only losing a pound, right? Here's the weight-loss plan: We cut off your hand.

Okay, that's a pretty bad idea. Not only does it leave you crippled, you're just as fat as you were before. This might be the dumbest weight-loss plan imaginable. And it has a lot in common with sequestration, which might be the dumbest deficit-reduction plan imaginable. Its cuts fall disproportionately on the Department of Defense, and the across-the-board nature of the cuts mean hacking away at the defense budget not by closing unnecessary bases or canceling misguided procurements, but by delaying refueling and maintenance on carrier strike groups that should be deployed.

Photo: UPI.

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