As Washington slouches toward another seemingly intractable and entirely artificial budget crisis it created for itself, there is a growing chorus proposing a very obvious conclusion: The sequester must die.
If Congress doesn’t act in the next week, automatic across-the-board 5-13 percent spending cuts will make the food system less safe, set back scientific research for a generation, and kick poor kids out of school, homeless people out of shelters, and firefighters off their trucks. Not to mention what sequestration will do to jobs, the economy, national security and adorable zoo animals. The hype is real. It is bad. At least 5-13 percent of the sky is falling.
And the worst part about it is that sequestration won’t even do much to fix the deficit, which is its entire purpose. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the long-term impact is negligible to minimal. "Sure, there's a delay in how fast the debt rises as compared to GDP, but virtually no change to the trajectory,” Business Insider’s Walter Hickey noted. Even Fix the Debt, the single-minded campaign to lower deficits that has no problem slashing Medicare to do it, says the sequester is mostly useless in solving the debt problem.
Republicans and Democrats are arguing over competing, less painful, more effective replacements for the sequester, but they are almost certain to run out of time. “The fact of the matter is there is, unfortunately, no like 'save the day!' behind-the-scenes plan happening,” a Senate aide lamented.
Congress has a habit of “solving” these things at the 11th hour (see the 2 a.m. New Year's Day fiscal cliff deal), so anything’s possible, but most people in Washington think a replacement won’t be decided upon until after sequestration is triggered, though most of the cuts will not be felt immediately.
But there is one simple solution gaining traction: Just undo the sequester and address the deficit under sane, non-emergency circumstances. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out, everybody -- Democrats, Republicans, economists, deficit hawks, big government spenders -- hates the sequester. So why not just kill it?
“The right policy would be to forget about the whole thing,” Paul Krugman wrote yesterday. “We should be spending more, not less, until we’re close to full employment; the sequester is exactly what the doctor didn’t order.”
The American people agree! According to a new Bloomberg poll out last night, 54 percent favor postponing the spending cuts, compared to 40 percent who say Congress should act now to get the deficit under control. “I just think we need to wait until the economy gets back on its feet before we just go in and cut without thinking,” one poll respondent said.
And a brand-new Pew poll, out today, finds that majorities of Americans oppose cutting 17 of the 18 federal programs on the chopping block that the poll asked about.
“Congress should pass a law eliminating it. Not replacing it with a bunch of other budget cuts, not engaging in a new game of chicken, not putting it off for a month or two, not having a bunch of proposals and counter-proposals, just cancelling it, period. Then once that's done, you can start the budget process for real,” American Prospect columnist Paul Waldman wrote this week.
“Yep. There shouldn't be any budget cuts this year,” agreed Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, saying the focus should be on long-term deficit targets, which have little to do with the cuts outlined in the sequester.
And it’s not just liberals. “If everybody agrees sequester is a mistake, instead of arguing whose idea it was, why not repeal and revert to regular budget process?” tweeted former Bush speechwriter David Frum. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for dropping the sequester last year, as well.
So why won’t this happen? Politics, naturally. Congressional aides asked about the idea said it was “pie in the sky,” and even stalwart liberals like the Congressional Progressive Caucus have settled on a plan to replace the sequester, instead of undoing it entirely.
President Obama and congressional Democrats eliminated the option of undoing the sequester last year as the election heated up, presumably in a bid to look serious on deficit reduction. And Republicans have warmed to the sequester in recent weeks, convinced that they can blame Obama for all the pain it will inflict on the economy.
Obama's replacement proposal is vastly superior to Republicans', but undoing the sequester and doing nothing is even better.