The sequester – automated, indiscriminate cuts across much of the federal government – was designed to be inconceivably stupid. So stupid that Republicans and Democrats would compromise on a deficit-cutting plan rather than let it take effect this Friday.
But they didn’t, and here it comes. A heresy now occurs to us: Among the sequester’s intended bad consequences, it may have an unintended good consequence: In the initial months, it could deliver a dose of shock therapy to the federal budget.
Congress needs some kind of shock. Compare the way it spends money with the way most states spend money.
When money gets tight in Olympia, for example, Washington governors force state agencies to practice triage.
Department heads are ordered to scrutinize their agencies’ activities and rank them in order of importance. What is necessary? What is nice but unnecessary? What is just a perpetuation of old spending habits?
What would they keep if they had to give up, say, 5 percent of their money?
Nothing so systematic ever happens at the federal level, where trillions of dollars are spent every year without any overriding set of priorities.
The federal budget-writing process is stupefyingly complex, balkanized and riddled with insider dealing. The resulting spending resolutions are rife with expensive absurdities, including subsidies for rich agribusinesses, weapons the military doesn’t want, and out-of-control but untouchable entitlements.
The awfulness of the sequester lies in the way it takes a meat ax to good and bad alike.
On paper, the defense budget gets hit by at least 8 percent and non-entitlement domestic programs by 5 percent. (The actual cuts would be higher this year because they’d be squeezed into fewer months.)
Those indefensible farm subsidies would get a trimming, but so would mental health treatment, military training, Head Start and nutritional assistance for poor, pregnant and new mothers.
We want to believe that congressional leaders wouldn’t just stand watching, dumb and happy, as the military withered and the whole parade of horribles unfolded. President Barack Obama and Congress are likely to step in and do damage control before genuine catastrophes happen.
In the meantime – and let’s hope it’s a short meantime – the sequester should force federal administrators to hunt for efficiencies like they’ve never done before.
The Pentagon, for example, has told 800,000 civilian employees that they are likely to face unpaid furloughs in coming months. That will hurt, but it could also prove revealing. It might turn out that not all 800,000 are needed to keep the military in fighting shape.
A $3.5 trillion government that rarely gets a close shearing is surely carrying some excess overhead and doing some nice-but-unnecessary things. Brainless as it is, the sequester could help flush them out.