By Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
After months of brinkmanship, there is no appetite for a government shutdown. Congressional Republicans introduced a bill this week that would keep the government operating past the end of this month.
But their bill leaves in place the $85 billion in automatic cuts now working their way through the federal system. Known as the “sequester,” they are already beginning to affect programs that hit close to home, including those that aid poor Americans and that feed research programs. The Medical College of Wisconsin reports that it will lose $5 million to $9 million in federal funding for research because of sequestration.
Over time, the federal government should close a yawning budget deficit that threatens the stability of the nation’s finances. But not this way. Sequestration uses a meat ax when a scalpel is needed. Cutting so much federal spending so fast will dampen the economy at a crucial moment, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO believes it will cost the economy 750,000 jobs and knock a half a percentage point off the gross domestic product.
This is not governing — it’s abdicating.
Such a willy nilly approach weakens government agencies and does almost nothing to solve the long-term budget problem, which is driven by millions of retiring baby boomers who are beginning to draw Social Security and Medicare.
What’s needed is entitlement reform that considers means testing benefits and higher eligibility ages along with targeted spending cuts elsewhere in the budget and tax reform that increases revenue over the long term.
The mandatory cuts were a last resort, dreamed up by the White House and congressional leadership as a way to force both sides to the table for real budget reform. Neither side would put their pet projects at risk, the theory went. But they did — and now it appears that the budget cuts will remain in effect at least through the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30.
The cuts are beginning to hurt. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 125,000 people are at risk of becoming homeless as cuts to vouchers for housing take effect. The cuts also could affect a program that offers fortified baby formula to babies born to poor mothers. The Navy said it would start to lay off temporary employees and slow down maintenance at Marine Corps depots. Schools at American Indian reservations and military bases are at risk of closing. Lines are growing longer at the nation’s airports.
And that’s just the start. The Office of Management and Budget said the cuts amount to a 13 percent decrease in funding for the next six months for defense programs and 9 percent cut for domestic programs.
Again, we don’t oppose bringing government down to size. The problem with this approach is that it is indiscriminate. Efficient programs and wasteful ones are cut with equal relish. And that’s just plain dumb.
The smarter approach would be to forgo some of the budget-cutting until the economy is stronger and by tackling the real drivers of spending growth: Medicare and Medicaid. Discretionary spending on such things as housing and education is not the problem.
“It’s the nature of the cuts that is most pernicious — across-the-board, without thought, cutting everything and anything including programs everyone thinks are good and effective,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told The New York Times recently. “It’s impossible to calculate in terms of dollars and cents what you’re doing when you have these mindless cuts.”
As we said: dumb. And we’re about to learn just how dumb our government can be.
The above editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.