Paul Ryan says it’s going to happen, the sequestration, that is. One can hardly imagine any alternative scenario, in which Democrats and Republicans work it all out, and come out singing Kumbaya with a deal to avert the workings of the automatic cuts, share and share alike, to domestic and defense discretionary spending.
Certainly, it would be better a) to prioritize cuts, and b) to reform entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security over a longer time line. The former is just common sense. The latter would reduce any short-term hit on the economy while improving the long-run balance sheet of the nation and head off cascading and uncontrolled spending and inevitable tax increases caused by changing demographics, i.e., low birth rates and an ageing population, and the fact that the entitlements are on auto-pilot and not subject to negotiations or restraint in the normal budgetary process in Congress.
But no Democrat is willing to jump on entitlements. No Republican wants to jump, say, on farm subsidies or defense spending. Let the grandchildren be damned.
For some time now I have been resisting the inexorable trajectory of my thought process regarding the budget process. In a sane world responsible grown-ups think about the future of the commonwealth and the fate of their children’s children, recognize that ours is a spending problem not a revenue problem, and get on with the hard work of restructuring the federal budget, again, over time, in such a way as to make the medicine go down more easily.
To put it another way, as bad as the current national debt is, now over $16 trillion, up from $2.9 trillion from the Reagan era, it pales next to the unfunded liabilities for entitlements, again, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The GAO puts the shortfall at $45.8 trillion over 75 years, requiring an additional $612 billion a year to overcome it.
Others, pointing to a range of items, on and off, budget, including federal pensions and retirement health care, argue that the actual figure is closer to $86.8 trillion.
Whatever figure you find more credible, it is several times higher than the $16 trillion figure commonly used in these discussions. So wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to engage in structural reform of entitlements as the number one priority even as some reasonable restraints are placed on discretionary spending?
Not gonna happen. It certainly hasn’t to date, and there is no indication that it will anytime soon. So we will proceed to cut discretionary spending, that is everything that makes up what most citizens think of as “government” -- defense, National Parks, the Weather Service, infrastructure and the like -- leaving the entitlements to careen towards ultimate collapse too.
Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman, has been charged by his caucus to come up with a plan to eliminate the deficit in ten years without raising taxes. It isn’t as if his first plan for achieving a balanced budget in thirty years wasn’t controversial enough. Obviously, either approach requires addressing entitlements, which is a good thing. But Democrats will not play ball on balancing the budget in either ten or thirty years. We hoped this impasse would be resolved by the last election, but here we are again.
So maybe we should thank our lucky stars that, due to blind dumb luck, we have stumbled into sequestration, a $1.2 trillion mandatory cut Congress designed to be so draconian that it would have to do something else. The “something else” has little chance of happening. Thus, Ryan’s prediction that the sequestration is going to happen is probably correct.
According to Professor Jeff Bergner, writing in the Wall Street Journal, “Some would inevitably argue that these cuts are unfair. Is the current budget fair? Everyone knows that a $3.6 trillion budget isn’t the happy result of Congress providing exactly what is ‘fair’ to every program.”
“The federal budget is the result of temporary and arbitrary political compromises, with each program funded as much as its advocates can get it and as little as its detractors can support,” says Bergner.
Bergner points out “There is no transcendent wisdom here, nor any argument that a federal budget that preserves the current allocation of spending, but at a slightly lower level, is somehow less fair.”
“Are we really to believe that a government that spent $2.7 trillion five years ago couldn’t survive a 3% cut that would bring spending to only $3.5 trillion today?” asks the good Professor.
Ergo, let it rip. Maybe it is time to start loving the sequestration.