Monday, September 17, 2012

the sequestriation diversion

Congress has, and often needs, action-forcing processes and events to get things done. When I worked in the Senate, the majority leader often scheduled the defense bill just before a preplanned recess so that Senators would forego offering frivolous amendments in order to travel home or abroad as planned.

In 1985, lawmakers adopted the first law requiring a "sequestration" of funds in order to meet deficit reduction targets. The term was a misleading euphemism for automatic, across-the-board cuts. The device served an important political goal, however. It let the formula decide where to cut [everywhere] rather than forcing congressmen to make difficult priority choices.

The 2011 Budget Control Act provided another opportunity for punting the deficit problem away. It created a supercommittee that was supposed to come up with a grand bargain.  In order to force that panel to reach agreement, Congress created a fallback mechanism of new across-the-board cuts, equally from defense and non-defense accounts. Republicans voted for sequestration, as did Democrats, and now everybody is bemoaning the stupid and drastic cuts that are slated for January 1, 2013.

By the way, last week's report on who would be hurt by the cuts tells nothing new, and was really the result of a new law passed by Congress asking the President to tell everybody how bad their earlier law was. See Stan Collender on this and other budget issues.

It would be nice -- it would be good for the country -- if lawmakers would reach a grand bargain that includes revenue increases and entitlement reforms. What is more likely, I fear, is a one or two year deal offsetting the $109 billion required each year to avoid sequestration. Wait and see.

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