Richard Davis: Sequester makes no sense, but it is time to cut

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 2:26 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama waves as he leaves the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office building on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, after he spoke about the sequester; standing with emergency responders, a group of workers the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Charles Dharapak, AP

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Thanks to an agreement last year between the Republicans and Democrats, $1.1 trillion in federal spending cuts will begin to take effect on Friday. Of that, $85 billion will be cut from the current year's budget. The other cuts will come over the next eight years, unless Congress and the White House agree to stop them.

Already, there are predictions of what the cuts will mean to the average citizen. The Transportation Department says there will be lengthy delays in airport security. The National Park Service says trash won't be picked up and some restrooms will be locked. Airport control towers will close. Various agencies say there will be employee furloughs.

These budget cuts will have an effect. But it is way past time for them. The federal deficit is out of control. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit this year is expected to be $845 billion. That's actually the lowest since 2008. Our national debt is $16.5 trillion.

The problem was not caused solely by the Obama administration, although it has exacerbated it. Indeed, it has been a long time coming. Deficit spending in a recession has merit, but deficit spending has been the rule, not the exception, for the past 30 years. And both parties share the blame. From 1981 to 2012, our budget deficit grew by $8 trillion under Republican presidents and $7.5 trillion under Democratic presidents. But we, the American people, need to take some blame as well. We voted for the Democrats when they promised more social services and we voted for the Republicans when they promised us tax cuts. This is a recipe for fiscal disaster, which is exactly where the nation is right now.

That's why it is so important finally to begin to put the government's fiscal house in order. But the way it is done doesn't make sense. Agencies should be required to make tough value decisions about programs rather than universal across the board cuts. Congress should force them to do that.

However, predictions of disaster on Friday should be taken with some degree of skepticism. It is standard for bureaucratic agencies to predict great suffering for the public when their budgets are threatened. Indeed, they focus predicted cuts in areas of the highest public impact in order to encourage the public to scream to restore the cuts.

Several years ago I worked for the Coast Guard when Congress threatened significant budget cuts. In response, Coast Guard leaders announced that they would cut Coast Guard services at several locations, particularly the area around Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Martha's Vineyard is home to wealthy entertainers, politicians and business executives. The prospect of being stranded on a yacht somewhere in the ocean without the Coast Guard to call on mobilized them to contact members of Congress and demand restoration of the Coast Guard's budget. They succeeded.

The Coast Guard is hardly alone in using this tactic. Another example was Amtrak's response when it was threatened with a cut in the federal subsidies it operates on. Rather than pare back a few of the numerous routes in the Northeast where it would not be noticed as much, the train service announced it would eliminate a cross country line stretching from Chicago to Seattle. Since that was the only train service in that part of the country, and it passed through several states and many Congressional districts, many members of Congress complained that Amtrak's budget simply could not be cut.

Unlike someone who favors a balanced budget to jettison social service programs, I believe in a balanced budget in order to preserve social services for the future. Only with fiscal responsibility can government preserve the ability to pay for a social safety net for years to come. That means not making future generations pay for today's programs. Today, we are that future generation carrying a huge debt burden caused by past generations' unwise deficit spending. Now is the time to decide we will not continue to do the same to the next generation.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu.

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