Hard words versus tough choices

Friday February 22, 2013

Audrey Pietrucha

Savage. Draconian. Devastating. It seems whenever the subject of budgets comes up politicians turn into English majors. On the topic of sequestration, as the mandatory federal budget cuts slated to go into effect March 1 are called, they’ve been wearing out their thesauruses trying to find scary words. All this is to describe what amounts to a miniscule decrease in the rate of federal spending, not actual spending.

Horrific. Unconscionable. Inhumane. Brutal.

Hyperbole isn’t really an adequate substitute for responsible management of the nation’s monetary resources but the men and women we elect to govern our nation far prefer it to the hard work of number crunching. When fiscal responsibility and common sense demand finding ways to trim a massive federal budget it is clear politician are wordsmiths rather than bookkeepers. Taxpayers deserve better than colorful prose when it comes to the management of their increasingly large contributions to government coffers.

Certainly our public servants had their chance. As part of the debt limit agreement they agreed to set up a "Supercommittee" comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats. This committee was charged with producing at least $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction. They couldn’t do it. After all, government has shown itself to manage every department and bureau with such efficiency and care there is not one extra dollar to spare (sarcasm off). Now automatic reductions in spending authority for selected programs (interest payments are exempt, as are most entitlement outlays) will go into effect at the beginning of next month and hence all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sequester was successfully used in the mid-eighties with small but real results in spending and deficit reduction. In 1989 it loomed again but this time the attempt to inject fiscal sanity into the budgeting process was successfully fought off. Then-Sen. Bob Packwood had this to say at the time:

"┼áthe sequester has become the focus of partisan debate. Each side accuses the other of being responsible for "deep and arbitrary" budget cuts. Some legislators say we should do whatever it takes to cancel the sequester, even if it means higher taxes. While a sequester is certainly not the ideal way to resolve this year’s budget dispute, there are reasons to believe that the fiscal discipline of a sequester is the medicine we need to cure the budget process. For all its drawbacks, a sequester is real deficit reduction. Instead of budget gimmicks, accounting tricks, phony cuts, and "revenue enhancements," a sequester would reduce spending levels by a fixed percentage in eligible spending programs. In other words, unlike most deficit reduction packages, sequestration would actually reduce the deficit."

Sequester may be an axe but Washington has shown itself incapable of using scalpels, even when given the chance. Axe might be too strong a metaphor, though, since the cuts being forced by sequester are pitiably small in proportion to the size of the federal budget and debt. It is important to understand that no actual cuts in spending, no matter how badly we need them, will take place under sequester.

Cuts are only in the projected rate of spending. Under this plan the 2013 budget would trim $85 billion from projected spending of $3.55 trillion, a mere 2.4 percent reduction. Even if the sequester goes through, the federal government will spend $2.14 trillion more in 2022 than it does today and Washington’s spending will by then be approaching $6 trillion a year.

Our government far exceeds its constitutional duties and limits. This point was underscored a few days ago when President Obama invoked theoh-so-creative, all-purpose political solution of raising taxes to avoid automatic cuts. The list of programs and services he claimed would be effected by a sequester - everything from emergency services and childcare to flu shots and cancer screenings - illustrated how deeply imbedded the federal government has become in our lives, how many responsibilities that were once considered local or personal are now assumed by distant bureaucrats. Still more frightening is how many additional tasks they want to take on despite the incompetence they regularly display in administering their current obligations.

The American people in general and taxpayers in particular have been told that sacrifice is necessary and everyone is going to feel some of the pain as we work to solve our fiscal problems. The political class and its minions, however, appear to be exempt from any such hardships. Their callous disregard for taxpayers’ shrinking disposable income and their belief that we always have a little more to give is offensive. Their audacity is hastening the time those who oil the machine of American prosperity will say "enough."

In the case of taxation, which is already high and going higher, people and businesses will react by working less and producing less. This reasonable response will always confound the political elite, which never seems prepared for the human element to manifest itself.

Most evident from the controversy surrounding automatic spending cuts is the frighteningly apparent fact that Washington cannot get its spending under control and we are heading for troubled economic times.

Irresponsible. Reckless. Thoughtless. Negligent.

See that -- I can use a thesaurus, too.

Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at vermontliberty@gmail.com.


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