The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 25, 2013

Zachary Hubbard | Federal follies: The sequestration sham


JOHNSTOWN — Chicken Little, aka our elected lunatics on Capitol Hill, wants us to believe the sky is falling. The crisis du jour is the Budget Control Act of 2011. More commonly called sequestration, the act mandates deep, automatic cuts primarily in federal discretionary spending if our fearless leaders can’t come up with a sane way of reducing it.  

It’s clear at this point they either can’t (incompetence) or won’t (foolishness). The automatic cuts are scheduled to kick in at the end of this month.

If you’ve been listening to the players in this fight, the Democratic Party and the GOP, you know it’s the other side’s fault. That’s the only thing either side can say with any degree of certainty. Add the tea party’s voice to the blame game and it’s hard to figure who’s doing what.

The American voters, those of us responsible for putting this bunch of do-nothings in office, can be certain of one thing: The political posturing over sequestration is more about winning the next election than fixing America’s looming financial disaster.

Listening to chest-thumping politicians singing the “Sequestration Blues” is enough to cause mental depression. The song has about a thousand verses.  Here are some of the most popular:

-- Federal workers may lose up to 20 percent of their income due to furloughs one day per week.

-- The Navy may have to let an aircraft carrier sit idle because it can’t afford to refuel its nuclear reactor.

-- Military readiness will suffer because training will be cut.

-- Federal Aviation Administration will have to lay off some air traffic controllers, making flying more dangerous.

-- Public tours of the White House will have to remain canceled.

What none of the guilty parties will tell us is that all of the sequestration squabbling is a sham designed to distract voter attention from the bigger problems.

The federal budget can be divided into three broad categories: Discretionary spending, interest payments on debt and mandatory spending.

Discretionary spending is what members of Congress budget for annually.

For the sake of argument, ignore the fact they often neglect to pass a budget. Instead, they negligently approve a series of continuing resolutions to keep funding the government so it doesn’t grind to a halt. God forbid – that might put the plundering pols at risk of not receiving their paychecks on time. Congress can decrease or increase annual discretionary spending as it sees fit.

Interest paid on the national debt is money that federal politicians throw away annually because they always spend more than the government takes in. Consequently, they borrow to make up the gap. It’s like maxing out your credit card and then only paying the minimum payment every month, except the congressional credit card has no credit limit.

Mandatory spending constitutes the bulk of federal spending. It’s difficult for Congress to cut, mainly because politicians who vote to eliminate or reduce this spending tend not to get re-elected. Mandatory spending includes a number of sacred cows, such as Social Security, Medicare and food stamps.

Collectively, these comprise so-called entitlement spending. A few politicians have the guts to make the tough choices regarding cuts in mandatory spending, but most go along to get along. Of the $85 billion in sequestration-mandated cuts this year, only about $15 billion (17 percent) is in mandatory spending. The rest will come from the discretionary spending pot of gold.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget consisted of 31 percent discretionary spending, 7 percent interest payment on the national debt and 62 percent spending on mandatory programs.

So here’s the dilemma – Congress spends 100 percent of the money but only exercises real control over about one-third of the spending. The remaining money is, for all practical purposes, automatically spent as long as Congress doesn’t act to stop or reduce it.

Think of this automatic spending like buying gas for your car. If you don’t buy gas, your car stops. If politicians don’t spend on entitlements, their careers stop – at least that’s their fear. So they avoid serious discussion about reforming entitlement spending, even though their own nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office informs them that failure to reform will eventually shipwreck the entire economy.

Posturing about sequestration allows politicians to appear concerned about the country while masking their primary objective of remaining in office as long as possible.

Entitlement reform is unavoidable because the money is running out. The politicians know it. They just don’t believe it will happen before the next election.

We can allow them to deal with this problem later, after it becomes a crisis, or we can address it now, while there is still time for making smart choices.

The United States will continue moving toward financial meltdown until voters force politicians to address entitlement reform and mandatory spending. Until then, sequestration and similar federal follies will continue.  

Zachary Hubbard is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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