WASHINGTON – If there’s a painless way to whittle down the nation’s $16 trillion debt, nobody has found it. Which is why the federal budget ax known as “sequestration” appears all but certain to fall on Friday.
“I think it’s going to happen,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
“It’s more than likely to happen,” said U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
Nobody wants it, but here it comes. Why? Because the only way to stop it is to cut a budget deal, and there aren’t a lot of deals getting cut in Congress these days.
Each vote carries its own risk-to-reward ratio in politics, and neither Republicans nor Democrats see much percentage in budging an inch. Everyone wants budget cuts, but nobody wants his or her budget cut. Everyone wants “entitlement reform,” but nobody wants Social Security or Medicare touched. Everyone pays lip service to “tax reform,” until it means your mortgage deduction, your pretax health benefit or your business write-off.
Everybody loves bipartisanship, but nobody wants to compromise on his or her principles. And what incentive is there to concede anything if you’re an average member of Congress who represents a politically gerrymandered district that is not even remotely competitive?
So instead of putting in some overtime this past week and working out a last-minute deal, members of Congress returned home to play to their respective home-crowd bases and blame the intransigence of the other side.In short, damage control.
Only a few short months ago, in the run-up to the “fiscal cliff” crisis, even conservative Republicans were making noises about raising new revenues by overhauling the tax code. Now, new revenues are off the table. Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, say entitlements are off the table. They’re mostly sticking to a peculiar Washington accounting sophistry that says it doesn’t add to the debt to continue paying out more in Social Security benefits than the system takes in from our payroll deductions. From a strictly inside-the-beltway calculation, the Zen-like beauty of the sequester is that it requires no compromises, no concessions and no action. It’s automatic, a consequence of a 2011 budget deal that said if we can’t get to a deal, then this dreaded thing would happen. The dreaded thing was supposed to be so dreadful it would spur a deal.But it didn’t — just another sign of how broken things are in Washington.
Minnesota, which ranks 49th in per capita federal spending, won’t fare as badly as most other states. But some estimates calculate more than 16,000 job losses in the state this year, along with $821 million in lost income, $117 million in lost grants and programs, and hundreds of million more in lost contracts and business.
And all of this comes out of a category of spending that accounts for only a third of the federal budget. The real debt-drivers aren’t being touched.
How bad will it be? Nobody really knows, and the effects will roll out slowly, like the FAA furloughs that could reduce flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and close four air-traffic-control towers in Minnesota.
Only later will we know if the risk-benefit equation has been altered in Congress, and in which direction.Peterson, a realist, sees sequestration as the only viable way to make painful budget cuts in the current weak-kneed political climate. But even he holds out hope for something more rational. “Depending on how it sorts out,” he said, “that may build some pressure to do something.”