That silence you hear is the sound of nothing happening as the so-called sequester takes effect this morning because of the inaction of Congress.
The effects of the massive budget cuts demanded by the sequester will be felt over time, but after the war of words between the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress, morning in post-sequester America might seem like an anti-climax.
Government agencies in Montpelier are already trying to figure out how to cope with less money for health care programs such as vaccinations, drug treatment and HIV tests, as well as meals for seniors. School districts are likely to see a decline in federal education aid. The National Guard is expecting to furlough personnel this spring.
The White House has been playing up these cuts as a way to pin the blame on Republicans. Republicans have been playing down the cuts, as if to say it’s much ado about nothing. The potential for delays in air travel has received much attention, but federal cuts will be imposed across the board, affecting food inspection, defense production, the processing of taxes and all the other functions of government we take for granted.
The larger effect may be on the performance of the overall economy. Economists say that the last thing we need is a decline in government spending, which has been an important support for the economy as it struggles to regain momentum following the Great Recession. Premature austerity in Europe has pulled Britain and other nations back into recession or worse. Spain is wrestling with depression-level unemployment, and continuing hardship is pushing politics, especially in southern Europe, toward greater extremism.
What the economy could have used instead of massive budget cuts was investment by Washington in the kind of infrastructure projects that are long overdue and which are crucial to future economic progress. But fear of indebtedness has crippled the ability of the government to take steps to revive the economy so it could begin to produce the revenues that would help curb the national debt. Already, health care reforms are eating into projections of future indebtedness, and the spectre of a debt crisis is receding. And yet Republicans have used the bogeyman of debt to cripple the government and threaten the welfare of the people.
The sequester, it will be remembered, was the response of Congress and the president to Republican blackmail in the summer of 2011 when GOP leaders threatened to force the federal government into default unless Congress enacted draconian budget cuts. The draconian cuts were deferred as a so-called super-committee looked futility for an answer. Now across-the-board cuts are upon us.
The tendency in public discussion of these budget battles has been to assign blame to both sides: the Republicans for obstructing action and Obama for failing to exercise leadership. That is a false picture. The sequester itself may have been advanced by the Obama White House, but only as a last-ditch effort to avoid the catastrophe of a default toward which the Republicans were pushing the nation in 2011. Obama has offered to compromise; the Republicans have refused. Inaction is the deliberate strategy of Republicans intent on sabotaging Obama’s program. That the voters thrashed Republicans in the November election appears not to figure into the thinking of Republican strategists.
The effects of the sequester will range from the inconvenience of airport delays to the hardship of increased joblessness. It did not have to happen. In the end, as the American people witness Republican-engineered paralysis take effect, they may gain a new appreciation for the government services on which they depend.
And why is paralysis the Republicans’ preferred strategy? It appears to be the last arrow in the quiver of a party pledged to defend above all the privileges and benefits enjoyed by special interest groups and the wealthy. Obama wants to address the debt by closing tax loopholes on the wealthy. The Republicans prefer cutting Meals on Wheels. That contrast ought to become more starkly evident in the coming months.
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