Sequester never felt so good

  • Article by: CHICAGO TRIBUNE EDITORIAL
  • Updated: May 8, 2013 - 8:26 PM

The sequester doesn't appear to hurt as much as everyone said it would.

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Travelers at the LAX International Airport in Los Angeles.

Photo: Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

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Yes, there was that bad gambit by the administration to furlough air traffic controllers and provoke Americans to warble, “End the sequester!” Many of those Americans instead vented their anger on congressional Democrats — they of the party that owns the executive branch and thus has to make things work. After less than a week, the White House beat feet.

Conservatives, having shown the supposed necessity of furloughs to be a falsehood, were jubilant. Liberals, having lost the gambit and failed to halt the sequester cuts to most other domestic spending growth, were apoplectic.

But look at how capably this sausage got made. Lawmakers crafted, and Obama codified in law, flexibility in how the U.S. Department of Transportation allocates its resources to provide vital services: Congress enabled a shift of $253 million from airport construction to controllers’ salaries. Crisis resolved.

Americans have watched similar adaptations over these nine weeks, and we hope they see many more. In agency after agency, officials have juggled priorities, reduced travel, sidelined contractors, dropped inconsequential initiatives — all sorts of economizing they haven’t done in the past because nobody made them do so.

The meat products that wouldn’t be federally inspected, the federal prisons with not enough guards, the criminals who wouldn’t face justice for lack of federal prosecutors — ably and sometimes reluctantly, the feds have averted threatened consequences of the sequester.

This is the slippery slope, with boiling cauldrons of oil at the bottom, that defenders of ever-rising spending always have feared: As Americans see officials making choices, lopping needless expenses and living within limits just as families and private-sector employers have to do, the confident claim that spending (and debt) simply can’t be sliced stands exposed as a fraud.

Here’s where many Democrats retort, fiercely, that cuts to poverty and other people programs are causing harm to constituencies that don’t have the clout that business-class fliers exerted.

So let’s stipulate for the sake of discussion that some domestic programs do deserve higher spending. No problem! Congress and the president merely need to keep making the choices they’re learning to make: If we want more for X, we’ll take it from Y. Because if Z equals more of the unchecked spending and debt that got us where we are, there ... is ... no ... Z.

We welcome the slippery slope because, as Democrats and Republicans know but unevenly admit, there is only so much discretionary spending to reallocate. Thus this overdue process of having to prioritize leads lawmakers straight to the entitlement spending that is busting federal finances — but which, for the most part, is immune from the sequester.

That immunity has to end. Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and other entitlements are strangling the federal budget just as pension liabilities are strangling the budgets of states and localities. Those three programs alone total some 45 percent of the federal budget. Obamacare will add to the burden but, at White House insistence, has been excluded from deficits-and-debt talks of the last three years.

Under current but also future pressure from sequestration, pols who reflexively have fought limits to entitlement growth face a choice: They can continue to fight higher eligibility ages, greater means-testing, a smarter inflation index and other entitlement reforms, or they can accept reforms and add funding to programs they want to enhance.

Either choice forces Obama’s party to accept what the public’s failure to rebel against Republicans now dictates: Washington has to live within spending limits. Add in the upcoming fight over again raising the government’s debt limit, and you appreciate the intensifying pressure on spending growth.

Maybe some future crisis will mobilize Americans against the sequester. We don’t know what that would be.

Yes, reductions in the rise of federal spending are slightly depressing economic growth that has averaged a lousy 2.1 percent since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Yes, government shed 11,000 jobs in April.

But the nation as a whole gained 165,000 jobs. Investors have driven the Dow and S&P 500 to new highs. Citizens know what their tax rates will be and what their government can spend. Those citizens can exploit the certainties that sequestration imposes. We hope these certainties, and personal initiative, will propel the economy.

What would speed that process?

Nothing would energize our economy more than Americans’ conviction that our leaders are lowering, rather than inflating, the taxpayers’ $16.8 trillion debt.

Please, more choices like those we’re seeing now. More acknowledgment that limits on spending growth need to include, not exclude, entitlements. America needs to broaden the sequestration experience — not for its blunt-edged cuts, but for the hard choices it forces on all of us.

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