Congress returns from its Presidents Day vacation Monday, with plans to take off next Friday. That gives lawmakers four days to solve the problem of the $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts that they plan to inflict on the country. It is the first installment on what is to be a 10-year series of automatic, annual, across-the board cuts totaling more than $1.2 trillion.
Perhaps because lawmakers haven't been around Washington much this year, they are showing little urgency about heading off this eminently foreseeable disaster, now known universally as the "sequester."
Congress could do what it did at the end of December and just postpone the reckoning for another month or two. But that will make the impact of the $85 billion reduction even more ruinous because it will be concentrated in eight or nine months instead of spread over 12.
As it happens, a potential solution has emerged, or re-emerged: an updated version of the Simpson-Bowles plan. President Barack Obama had appointed former Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles in early 2010 to head a commission to produce a deficit reduction plan.
Late that year, they proposed a package of reforms, targeted spending cuts and new revenues created by closing tax loopholes.
Obama ignored their recommendations, though they weren't terribly far from the "grand bargain" that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner reached last year. The House repudiated Simpson-Bowles, 382 to 38, a vote that was a slap at Obama and a warning to Boehner.
But virtually everyone who has studied the budget problem believes the solution will be very much like Simpson-Bowles. Bowles, not given to overstatement, calls the sequester "stupid, stupid, stupid." But absent congressional action, it goes into effect March 1 — a day that Congress has decided to take off.