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In our opinion: Sequestration warnings sound a lot like crying wolf

Published: Monday, July 15 2013 12:42 p.m. MDT

Several F-16 Fighting Falcons return to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, from a deployment to Bagram AB, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct., 20, 2009.

Chen Wang, Deseret News

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As summer begins its inevitable slide into fall, get ready to hear more dire predictions out of Washington. The next round of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts Congress enacted in lieu of rational, negotiated cuts to solve the nation's long-term deficit-spending problem, is scheduled to take effect in October.

The predictions started already last week when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sent a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, warning that the scheduled $52 billion cut to a total defense budget of just under $700 billion would cause "serious damage" to the nation's defense. Using words such as "draconian," Hagel warned of a reduction in troop readiness and combat power. The military may have to impose a hiring freeze, cut training programs and increase health care costs for veterans.

The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., echoed the secretary's concern, calling further cuts an "unthinkable reality," according to a CBS News account.

However, the nation's political leaders have a big problem to overcome when dealing with this issue. Americans have heard it all before, and quite recently. The White House, in particular, warned of calamities from long waits at airports to the loss of air traffic control at smaller airports to prison guard furloughs. The poor would suffer as emergency pantries went bare, the nation was told. The military warned of being unable to pay for service members' health care.

None of these came true.

New warnings naturally will sound like so many proverbial boys crying wolf. Meanwhile, Americans can see that sequestration at least set in motion a serious movement toward reducing government expenditures. And while we have consistently said these are not as ideal as deliberative, well-reasoned cuts based on sound priorities, they so far have been implemented in a way that suggests Washington is indeed bloated.

Sequestration was designed as a way to force Congress to move beyond partisan concerns and hammer out a compromise. Congress put it in the Budget Control Act of 2011, mandating that across-the-board cuts would take place on a certain date if no agreement was reached. The cuts were thought to be so drastic that politicians would try to avoid them at all costs.

Instead, the first round of cuts, amounting to about $85 billion, took effect with little noticeable pain. What was supposed to be a blunt ax turned out to be a scalpel. Some departments found plenty of fat to trim, and Congress stepped in with political maneuvers that, for instance, kept traffic control towers going at smaller airports.

The Washington Post recently studied 48 of the most dire predictions made before sequestration took effect. It found only 11 had come true. Some involved a reduction in unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. The military reduced Army training and Naval ship deployments somewhat, and some government workers were furloughed.

But 24 of the predictions did not happen, and the other 13 were deemed too soon to tell. Money was shifted, superfluous and expendable funds were found and travel budgets were reduced. At the Justice Department, $300 million was cut from a fund containing allocations that had expired and no longer could be spent. The U.S. Geological Survey sent only 350 scientists to an annual conference, rather than the 469 who went the year before. The National Park Service somehow found $4 million in savings from its budget. Some departments deferred maintenance and put off capital improvements.

Next up, Congress faces spending ceilings that were designed, again, to force compromise. It appears more likely, however, that lawmakers will end up letting individual agencies make those decisions.

It is true, as some are warning, that sequestration eventually will begin to take a toll. Scientists, for instance, warn that a reduction in grant money eventually will threaten important research at universities and send many of the nation's brightest researchers abroad. Hagel's warnings no doubt will force the military to become more innovative.

But no meaningful budget reform could be enacted without some pain. Congress, meanwhile, has already shown itself resilient enough to keep especially damaging cuts from occurring. Sequestration, despite its design as a sign of failure, may yet prove to be a success.

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