Sequester Was Intended To Be Bad Policy, Let’s End It

Alice M. Rivlin

Parents and preschool teachers know what to do when kids are fighting. First, halt the damage. Then, stop the blaming—it doesn’t matter right now who hit whom first. Then, propose a constructive project—help me clear the plates or rake the leaves—that both sides can turn to right away. Usually peace is restored and the kids work together.

It doesn’t matter who first thought of this dreadful sequester. It was intended to be bad policy—mindless automatic across-the-board cuts in defense and domestic spending that both sides agreed should not happen. The obviously stupid cuts were supposed to force Republicans and Democrats to hammer out a debt reduction plan that both sides could accept. In the absence of an adult in the room, the kids thought they could make themselves behave by designing this procedural gimmick. Both sides voted for it and the President signed the bill. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t work out. It happens.

Now the public must take over the role of adult-in-charge and send three loud, clear messages. First, stop the damage! The sequester will cut federal spending sharply enough to endanger the economic recovery that is finally picking up speed. It will cost jobs—not just federal jobs, but teachers and firefighters and private sector workers across the country. The federal budget is already restraining economic growth as the deficit recedes from its recession highs and the wars wind down. More austerity will stall job growth, as similar policies have in Europe.

The sequester will also endanger government services that citizens depend on from air traffic control to national parks to troop support. Even those who believe government spending should be reduced quickly want to cut programs they deem wasteful or low priority, not everything equally. Of course, that was exactly the point of the sequester: to force a more sensible approach.

Second, stop the blaming now! It doesn’t matter who thought of this sequester. Just fix it! We also don’t want any more squabbling about which party is most responsible for the fact that the budget is on an unsustainable path for in the longer run.

The prospective rise in federal debt looming at us in coming decades is not the fault of either political party. The huge Baby Boom generation is retiring, average citizens are living longer in retirement, health care spending per person has been rising faster than other spending (because health care is more effective than before and often inefficiently delivered), and our tax code is riddled with backdoor spending that reduces revenues. These facts together mean that until we modify our current policies federal debt will rise faster than our economy can grow, endangering future prosperity. The policies that matter most for future debt and need to be modified—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the tax code—were broadly supported by both political parties when conditions were different. The only sin here is widely shared short-sightedness. Pointing partisan fingers now only makes it harder to agree on solutions.

The third message is: get to work!  You don’t need any more commissions, task forces, “super committees,” or bipartisan gangs to tell you what to do. All of these groups agree that small gradual changes in the future growth of federal health care and retirement benefits combined with tax reform that produces more revenue are necessary to keep future debt from growing faster than the economy and put it on a downward path. The sooner you act the smaller and more gradual these changes can be and the easier they will be to absorb. Stop scaring people, especially senior citizens, by exaggerating the harm the other side’s solutions would cause—that is part of the blame game we want stopped.

The public elected you to solve problems and there are plenty to be solved: creating more and better jobs, reforming our immigration laws, addressing climate change, and controlling gun violence. But none of this will happen if politicians keep lurching from one confidence-destroying budget crisis to another. So, stop the damaging sequester, go silent on blame, and get to work on a sensible budget deal that will strengthen the recovery and put the debt on a sustainable path. It is not that hard!