Opinion Columns & Blogs

March 29, 2013

Doyle McManus: Sequester cuts are causing pain – to Congress

Think the automatic budget cuts Congress ordered at the beginning of March – the so-called sequester – haven’t caused any pain yet? Think again.

Think the automatic budget cuts Congress ordered at the beginning of March – the so-called sequester – haven’t caused any pain yet? Think again.

Judging from the squeals we’re hearing from members of Congress whose districts are threatened by cuts, the effects are intolerable.

The complaints from Democrats, who never wanted the sequester to go into effect, were predictable. But some of the complaining comes from Republicans who welcomed the sequester as an overdue act of belt-tightening.

Tea party Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, has decried cuts to NASA, which he called “one of the few legitimate functions of government.” (The Johnson Space Center, with about 3,000 civilian employees, happens to be in his Houston-area district.)

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who became famous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama, has argued that a big nuclear-reprocessing plant in his district should be spared. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, has suggested that all civilian defense employees, including the thousands in his Gulf Coast district, should be exempted from the threat of furloughs.

And dozens of Republicans from rural areas have protested the Federal Aviation Administration’s plans to close control towers at 173 small airports, arguing that the needs of plane-flying farmers should come before competing priorities.

It’s funny how budget cuts seem more palatable when they affect someone else.

Still, it was striking that one of Congress’ rare moments of bipartisan cooperation came last week as both chambers acted to avoid an unnecessary government shutdown at the end of the month – and, along the way, to undo some of the most painful effects of their own sequester.

The two houses voted with unusual efficiency to transfer money (within the sequester’s limits) to prevent furloughs among meat inspectors, which could have caused hardship for ranchers and price spikes for consumers, and to restore funding for tuition subsidies for the military.

Both were causes that attracted bipartisan support. But both votes also reflected a return to politics as usual. They were choices among competing priorities – and, as usual, the squeakiest wheels won.

Nobody is opposed to meat inspection. But all Congress’ action means is that the Agriculture Department now has to take that money from less-urgent programs, the kind of choice legislators should have made all along.

And that’s the bigger point of last week’s congressional action: The $85 billion sequester is here to stay.

When it went into effect March 1, Obama and the Democrats hoped the sequester’s meat-ax effects would be so terrible that the public would force Congress to reverse course.

But the White House overplayed its hand. The Secret Service canceled White House tours to save $74,000 a week – a move the administration knew would hit members of Congress where it hurt, since they distribute tour tickets to constituents. But it also made Obama look petty, and government less accessible, and now the White House says it’s reconsidering.

Despite the bipartisan yelping, the sequester has turned out to be mild, at least in this early stage. And now, by selectively undoing its most unpopular cuts, Congress is diluting the effect further. As a result, the once-feared sequester is starting to seem like nothing more than a slightly messy $85 billion spending cut that Congress can continue to tinker with for the rest of the year.

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