Both sides in the sequestration debate are partially right, but the doomsayers are far more wrong than those who do little more than shrug at the looming “cuts.” The sheer size of the domestic spending cuts, in fact, is no problem at all, although the across-the-board, meat-cleaver approach would indeed be bad policy if it became a permanent feature. On the other hand, those who worry about the defense cuts do have absolutely valid concerns.
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.
The good news for defense is that subsequent appropriations bills can fix the real problem areas, as both sides at least in theory agree that those cuts in across-the-board form are unsustainable (see Leon Panetta’s repeated warnings).
The level of the domestic cuts, on the other hand, has even been accepted by Harry Reid and other Democrats. It will soon become apparent that on the domestic front, Barack Obama has cried wolf. Most Republicans in Congress, mirable dictu, seem to understand this. Refusing to kowtow to Obama on this is good politics. Republicans should hold firm now, and then get to work on fixing the defense problems via the upcoming continuing resolution. All told, this is a small win for limited government — if we can keep it.