A day is fast approaching in which Democrats and Republicans, lefty liberal commies and right-wing tea party gun nuts will break ground in something we have not seen in recent memory: they will agree on something.
Put away your party hats and pause kumbaya, however, because agreeing that the upcoming sequester means disaster for programs that serve the American populace and agreeing on what to do about it are two very different things. So different, in fact, that the indiscriminate cuts that will galvanize so many important programs might be unstoppable.
“Sequester” was once a fairly obscure word in American political jargon, its use reserved mostly for those who worked in and around the government. Because we are the recipients of a fear-based media template, the term has entered the mainstream lexicon via the newsreels. But that doesn’t mean we all understand what it means. At least, I didn’t. So I looked it up so as to educate myself. I share it with you here as your President’s Day gift.
From what I’ve discerned, the sequester was put in place during the debt ceiling negotiations in 2011. I’m as sick as anyone hearing about the fiscal cliff and I’m guessing Congress was as well, which is why they set up the sequester as a looming bipartisan disaster to force their hands into creating a workable budget. I can relate to this, even if I’m disappointed that this is what it needed to come to. I used to do the same thing in college: levy some kind of punishment like an guillotine over my head in order to make myself turn a paper in by deadline. If I didn’t get my work done, that’s it: only well drinks for me. In this case, the hangover didn’t fit the crime.
In a similar fashion, President Obama and House speaker John Boehner helped to author the sequester in order to motivate both sides into passing a workable budget. They made the alternative so unappealing to both parties so as to force them into compromise mode.
Shit’s getting real.
Instead of promising a party with martinis and cupcakes to reward the acts of doing their jobs, we’ve moved onto phase two: punishment if they don’t. Mom is on the top of the steps counting one…two…You know you’re in trouble if she ever reaches three. For the purpose of this metaphor, the part of mom will be played by Leon Panetta, who is warning that the sequester could undermine national security. According to the New York Times, “the cuts to already pared-down domestic spending will set back critical needs like cancer research; Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children; and funding for the Border Patrol. The U.S. economic recovery would be impeded, at a cost of as many as 750,000 jobs.”
The shit hits the fan precisely on March 1st in form of across the board cuts of ten percent of the budget, affecting defense and domestic spending. The right is digging in their heels, saying that cuts need to be made to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. The left wants to extend the tax increases for the wealthy. The right is determined to decrease spending to make a serious dent in the deficit, while the left maintains that sensible spending in needed programs will increase revenue in the long term.
Recommendations have been sent forth by institutions like the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that suggest concessions by both parties as an alternative to the sequester. Bowles-Simpson recommends a $350 million dollar cut to Medicare that affects only the most affluent of recipients. S-B (lucky for acronym makers that Simpson got top billing) also allows for more tax increases (including the ending of Bush’s tax cuts for those making over $250,000, as well as taxing capital gains and dividends on normal income) and increases the age of Social Security eligibility to 68 in 2050 and 69 in 2075. There’s also a fifteen-cent raise in gas tax.
While it seems politicians on both sides of the aisle pay lip service to Simpson-Bowles, it has been accepted and rejected in equal parts by both parties who fear not only economic Armageddon, but personal political hell. How they duke it out from here on out, taking tips from Simpson-Bowles or The Center for American Progress, will be entertainment for us to watch as the clock ticks toward deadline.
We’ll just hope that the party is worth the hangover.