Guest Column: A great nation brought low by its dysfunctional politics

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Congress and the Obama administration are likely to give the nation a self-inflicted wound known as the “sequester” later this week, a calculated decision that will lead to mindless budget-cutting and harm to the U.S. economy.

President Barack Obama continues to rail against the cuts, and some in Congress are worried about pet programs ranging from national defense to food stamps, but the two sides are not negotiating and both seem content to see how the political fallout rains down before acting.

The sharp across-the-board cuts that are coming are nonsensical; the failure of Obama and congressional leadership to negotiate a better deal speaks poorly of both sides. But it might shake members of Congress — and even the public — out of what some have called the nation’s “both/and” mentality.

Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake of The Washington Post wrote in “The Fix” column Monday that “just because the sequester is a manufactured crisis doesn’t mean it can’t have the same effect as a non-manufactured crisis in waking up the body politic to the “have cake/eat it too” mentality that dominates not just Washington but the public at large.”

They cite a recent Pew Research Center poll earlier this month that showed a public that wants it all.

The Pew poll found broad support for cutting federal spending — until respondents had to decide what actually would be cut. In none of the 19 specific areas polled did a majority of people support reducing federal spending. In fact, in 16 of the 19, people favored increasing spending.

In short: Cutting federal spending sounds great — as long as it’s the other guy who gets cut.

What such a finding calls for, of course, is political courage. And perhaps the threat of curtailed government services could eventually provide it.

The administration released state-by-state statistics showing what it said would happen if the sequester takes effect as scheduled on Friday. The White House said Wisconsin would lose about $8.5 million in aid for classroom teachers, would have fewer work-study jobs, fewer Head Start services, less money for preventing air and water pollution and less money for job training and public health — among other things. The entire list is at the White House website:

Is this simply hyperbole, as Republicans claim? There’s certainly an element of that in the White House numbers. But such deep automatic cuts will hurt the economy. A number of government and private economic forecasters surveyed by The New York Times last week found that the cuts probably would reduce growth by about one-half of a percentage point this year.

The threat of sequestration was supposed to scare the White House and congressional leaders into a more comprehensive approach to deficit reduction. The sequester became law in 2011 during the fight to raise the federal debt ceiling. The original deal had the automatic cuts beginning on Jan. 1 of this year, but that date was pushed back two months in the deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” If it takes effect, there would be $85 billion in spending cuts during the rest of this fiscal year, with $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years.

The idea was this: The prospect of such deep cuts to programs that both Republicans and Democrats hold dear would force both sides to the bargaining table. But it hasn’t happened.

A smarter approach would be a combination of spending cuts over a period of years combined with tax reform that closed loopholes and raised more revenue while lowering rates, particularly for corporations. Obama continues to call for a “balanced” approach including more taxes on the wealthy. He has indicated that Democrats will have to compromise on changes to entitlement programs. We hope he means it.

The sequester is a blunt instrument that helps no one and will hurt both the economy and thousands of individuals across the country. And here’s the irony: If it remains in effect, it isn’t likely to do that much to reduce the deficit because of the negative effects on the economy. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that defense cuts alone would reduce gross domestic product by 0.4% and result in nearly a half-million lost jobs by the end of this fiscal year.

Maybe that’s the sort of pain it will take to get political leaders in both parties to reach a smarter deal.

The following editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday, Feb. 26