At the core of the dysfunction in Washington is this dilemma: Government must approve spending cuts, yet government has no interest in approving spending cuts. Federal employees are quite content with their lifestyles—46 percent more in retirement benefits than the private sector, cozy job security—and don’t want to see them trimmed. Thus even spending reductions that make it through Congress rarely make a difference.
Look at what happened with the sequester.
By now just reading the word “sequester” should render the average reader cowering under his desk while “Flight of the Valkyries” thunders in his mind. Sequestration, after all, was supposed to hack apart the social order as we knew it. Chris Matthews called it a “doomsday machine.” President Obama warned that “people are going to be hurt.” The Congressional Budget Office predicted 750,000 jobs could be lost. Sequestration, as the trendy metaphor went, was a meat cleaver when what we really needed was a scalpel.
It now seems the cleaver had a rather dull edge. A recent Government Accountability Office found that the sequester resulted in exactly one government layoff. One. That means sequestration has killed the same number of federal jobs as a Tweet praising the show “2 Broke Girls.”
Many other employees were furloughed with a 20 percent pay cut for the days they didn’t work, which got them celebrated as suffering servants in the pages of the Washington Post. The Defense Department, which was hit the hardest, furloughed 640,500 employees, while the Treasury furloughed 84,000 and the Department of Transportation 16,000. But no agency furloughed anyone for more than seven days. That means a worker who would have taken home $50,000 last year instead pocketed $49,808.
Images of bare cupboards and cobwebbed pantries don’t exactly spring to mind. Instead it’s hard not to think: We endured months of hysteria for this?
Among the report’s other horror stories:
- Sequestration shrank HUD rental housing assistance by 2.2 percent.
- Sequestration cut NIH noncompeting research grants by 4.7 percent.
- Sequestration reduced the federal employee satisfaction rating by 4 percent.
- Sequestration spat in your burger and tried to run off with your girlfriend during that party at Dave’s beach house last summer.
Actually that last one is from the Politico cutting room floor. But the rest give you a sense of just how tiny the sequester is in the shadow of our $17.5 trillion national debt.
Some departments were able to weather the sequester better than others. As the GAO report notes:
Some agencies began cost saving initiatives in prior years—unrelated to sequestration—that they reported helped them to minimize the effects of sequestration on their missions. Some of these initiatives included efficiency efforts, consolidations, workforce restructuring, and hiring restrictions.
Agencies that were already cutting waste and reducing inefficiency were able to mitigate some of their sequester obligations. Imagine that! Why wasn't every department doing this long before the sequester hit?
The answer is that most federal agencies aren’t in the habit of taming their budgets. When Congress agreed to cut $37.8 billion in 2011, it was called “the largest annual spending cut in our history” by President Obama, and lethal austerity by many liberal economists. The bureaucracy responded with shell games and chicanery. The Census Bureau cut $6 billion by agreeing not to run the 2010 Census again in 2011. Congress killed $14.6 million for construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which was finished in 2008. Not a single federal employee was laid off.
According to the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold, many conservatives embraced the sequester out of frustration with the 2011 non-cuts. Now we know that the sequester didn’t have a meaningful impact either.
All this has annoyed the redoubtable Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator and longtime scourge of government lard. Coburn called the GAO sequester report “devastating to the credibility of Washington politicians and administration officials.” “Taxpayers expect us to root our predictions in fact,” he said, “not ideology and spin.” Ah, but there’s an entire austerity-hysterical complex that exists to scream bloody murder every time a spending cut is proposed. That they’ve been wrong about everything in the past hasn’t stopped them, and this isn’t likely to either.
Despite the lack of damage, the hysterics were able to convince enough of Congress to cancel the bulk of the sequester cuts in the Ryan-Murray budget last year. So we’re back to square one. It makes those of us who live in Washington wonder: What do you have to do to get fired around here?