If President Barack Obama, the Republican House and the Democratic Senate cannot cut $85 billion from this year's $3.8 trillion budget without laying off first responders, tying up airport security lines and furloughing food safety inspectors, what good are they?
The answer is: Not much. It turns out we elect lawmakers so they can hold our time and safety hostage. When Congress passed and the president signed the 2011 Budget Control Act, all parties agreed that the act's $1.2 trillion in "sequester" cuts over 10 years would be so terrible that a bipartisan supercommittee would be forced to present a better plan for deficit reduction.
But the committee failed. The "sequester" cuts were designed to be too terrible for taxpayers, but not for Washington insiders embroiled in the blame game.
You see, the 2011 budget act didn't simply mandate $85 billion in cuts this year — $46 billion from the Pentagon, $39 billion in discretionary spending. The law also required that the cuts be administered under an across-the-board formula that imposes cuts, as one White House aide put it, "at a granular level." The Department of Agriculture cannot decide to balance its books simply by cutting farm subsidies or other forms of corporate welfare. No, the cuts have to shave every agency account.
Citizens Against Government Waste has compiled 691 recommendations to save taxpayers $391.9 billion in one year alone. The Budget Control Act deliberately ignores such recommendations. "How insane is that," asked the group's Leslie Paige, "that they can't even agree to getting rid of duplicative programs?"
In effect, the 2011 law was written to protect waste — so that if the sequester cuts happened, only the dumbest cuts would follow.
Does the president mind the loss of 750,000 jobs for ugly cuts? Well, he cared enough to go on TV and grouse Tuesday.
Be it noted, Obama proposed sequestration during budget negotiations in 2011. A year ago, he pledged to veto any alternative cuts. Now that they are about to happen, he isn't pushing to make the sequestration work; he is making an all-out effort to blame Republicans for it.
He says that he wants a "balanced" solution, which means he can call for more tax increases and then blame Republicans for the cuts he proposed.
House Republicans passed two bills with alternative cuts. But those bills moved the cuts to discretionary programs — so the bills will die in the Senate.
Senate Democrats are playing with an alternative measure to raise taxes on the wealthy and impose smaller but targeted cuts to defense and discretionary spending. That package would not survive in the GOP House, and it's not even clear it could pass in the Senate.
This is the pressure-point moment when Washington usually decides that it cannot abide by the laws of mathematics, so, gosh darn, Congress will have to unite to delay the sequester cuts for another year.
Except some Republicans are hanging tough because they know that if they cave on cuts now, they are doomed to give up on spending cuts ever after. Better bad cuts than no cuts.
Make no mistake about the reason these cuts are too terrible: Washington passed a law that precluded cutting the pork.