Early last June, I was having coffee with a longtime friend, a former Republican member of Congress widely considered one of the most astute watchers of Washington and the political process. This friend said he thought that budget sequestration was very likely to happen, that it was almost inevitable given the players and dynamics that were in place. Keep in mind that this was long before the outcome of the November 2012 election was known.
My friend wasn’t arguing that he was in favor of sequestration. In fact, he stated matter-of-factly that he didn’t want to see it happen. He speculated that it would bring pain and hardship and quite possibly tip us into a recession, albeit probably a brief one. He finished his point by making the case that as much as he would hate to see it happen, that once it did happen, once the economy emerged out of the other side of the horrible and mindless process, that the nation’s budget numbers would look much better. He predicted that in the long haul, even factoring in the pain, we might be better off than if it had not occurred.
All of this was in the context of saying that sequestration was a crude and very blunt instrument—really a mindless way to cut a budget. Policymakers making real decisions and determining spending priorities was clearly preferable, just unlikely under the circumstances.
When I heard these words, I wanted to jump up and yell “Heresy!” It was the first time that I had heard sequestration discussed in any way other than it being stupid, irresponsible, and a declaration that if it actually happened, it was a sign that the system was fundamentally broken. Now, the case can be made that this friend was right on all counts: Perhaps sequestration is a bad idea whose time has come.
Another friend, Scowcroft Group political economist Tom Gallagher, quibbles whenever he hears someone say that the political process in Washington has become dysfunctional, instead arguing that it is just functioning very badly, but it still is functioning. The fact that the government didn’t shut down on New Year’s Day during the fiscal-cliff crisis and doesn’t look likely to shut down at the end of this month, and that measures are now moving that would put in place a continuing resolution until Sept. 30, are signs that things are still functioning, just badly.
We find ourselves with a process that lurches from one near disaster to another, not addressing the long-term problems in a constructive way, each time doing barely enough to avoid cataclysm. The challenge in trying to anticipate the consequences is enormous. Economist and former Congressional Budget Office Director Rudy Penner put it this way: “We have to forecast an irrational process involving irrational actors operating in a poisoned atmosphere.”
As one private study recently concluded, “Politics, absent a crisis, will prevent us from confronting major problems. It takes a crisis to change the behavior of policymakers, to force action.”
It looks increasingly likely that a government shutdown will be avoided, but that sequestration is here to stay, at least for a while. Clearly having wise and fair-minded men and women making specific spending decisions would be preferable. We can only hope that a recession is avoided and that some good will come from this process, namely a real reduction in the deficit—even if it targets discretionary spending, a declining share of the federal budget, while virtually ignoring Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are the slices of the pie that are rapidly expanding.
As a believer in the pendulum theory of history and politics, I’m confident that some event or series of events will eventually interrupt and correct this destructive course, but it’s worrisome to wonder at the magnitude of the crisis needed to change the fundamental behavior of policymakers of both parties, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and increasingly, though to a lesser extent, in some state capitols.
The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, members of Congress from both parties gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America,” lending some the hope that some good might come from such a horrific event. Yet the fight that soon broke out over whether the U.S. should or should not invade Iraq broke open the wound, making things worse than before. Let’s hope it won’t take something that horrible and there won’t be a subsequent conflict to interrupt the healing.