|Bonner Column: Navigating the Sequester|
As I write this column, March 1st has already arrived and the much talked about "sequester" has been triggered. This is the latest in a string of budgetary showdowns that illustrate the wide gulf that separates the White House and conservatives in Congress over government spending.
Unlike the last federal budget showdown – more dramatically dubbed the "fiscal cliff" – there was no last minute deal to avoid the $85 billion in automatic spending reductions spread out over the next seven months as prescribed by the sequester. In the week leading up to March 1st, President Obama predicted dire consequences for the nation if Congress did not agree to pass his plan of new tax increases. However, as the sequester implementation date arrived, he began to backpedal his doomsday predictions, saying it is "not a cliff, but instead, a tumble downward."
Many wonder how we got to this point and why an agreement cannot be easily reached.
The sequester was born of the August 2011 Budget Control Act, in which Congress and the president agreed to reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. Because of the deep division between both sides over how to pare down the deficit – the White House wanted tax increases and the House argued for reduced spending – the president suggested that a tough enforcement mechanism be incorporated into the Budget Control Act to ensure some compromise would be reached to avert the threat of spending cuts. This mechanism was called sequestration.
Last week, as the deadline for the automatic spending cuts approached, the president and his allies in Washington were sounding alarms all over town about the impact of the sequester – overall a 2.3 percent spending cut to our nearly $3.5 trillion annual expenditures. To the extreme frustration of the House, the president spent the final days before the deadline flying around the country, holding town hall style rallies rather than sitting down with Congress to hammer out an agreement. Leading from behind was his strategy, while also attempting to blame Congress for the sequester in the first place.
The White House issued reams of press releases detailing the hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be lost and the chaos that would consume the land if Congress did not bend to the administration's demand of higher taxes to avoid the sequester. If that wasn't enough, the Department of Homeland Security decided to turn loose hundreds of detained illegal aliens days before the deadline to drive home the president's predictions.
To put these cuts into perspective, bear in mind that the sequester will only reduce spending by federal agencies to approximately where it was in 2010. To the best of my recollection, neither the president nor his cohorts in Congress were running around like Chicken Little predicting gloom and doom across the nation then.
Most of the people in South Alabama I've heard from don't understand how Washington cannot find a way to reduce spending. They don't want tax increases; they want the government to begin to live within its means, just as hard working American workers and their employers have always done. In contrast, the House has tried to lead by example. You won't hear about it on the evening news, but we have cut our own operating budget by 11 percent over the last two years. We've also eliminated earmarks. What's more, the House has passed two yearly budget resolutions in a row that actually reduce federal spending over a decade and put the country on a path to a balanced budget. The president has yet to do the same, and the Senate hasn't passed a budget of its own in four years. Nothing is getting done because the other side isn't participating.
Here's something else you won't hear on the news. The House has also passed two separate bills to avoid sequestration through targeted spending cuts. The first such bill passed six months ago, and the second was approved by the House in December. As with the myriad of other bills we've approved here in the House, the Senate refused to vote on them and even failed to pass its own sequestration aversion bill a day before the deadline passed.
Just because sequestration is upon us doesn't mean that an agreement still cannot be reached. The sequester trims defense and non-defense discretionary programs, (Medicare capped at two percent and Social Security and Medicaid are both exempted) until the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2013). However, there is nothing to prevent lawmakers from halting the sequester if an appropriate amount of offsetting spending cuts can be agreed upon. Speaker Boehner has called on President Obama and Senator Reid to join the House in serious discussions over ways to implement smarter budget cuts and reforms. Until such time as the president agrees to work together with Congress, budget cuts will be made one way or another.
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For release: March 4, 2013