Here come the sequester’s $85 billion in cuts

President Obama and House Republicans still remain far apart in their latest battle over government spending, deficits, and taxes.

What happened

The Pentagon and the federal government were bracing for about $85 billion in automatic spending cuts starting next week, as President Obama and House Republicans remained far apart in their latest battle over government spending, deficits, and taxes. Speaking at a White House event while surrounded by federal employees, Obama called on Congress to delay the so-called “sequester” cuts to defense and domestic spending and negotiate a “balanced” deficit-reduction plan. The sequester’s “meat cleaver approach” to deficit reduction, Obama said, would cause unemployment to soar, damage the economy, and impair military readiness. The Congressional Budget Office warned that the $85 billion reduction in federal spending this year would reduce GDP growth by 1.25 percent and eliminate at least 750,000 jobs, including teachers, police, and private defense contractors. “This is not an abstraction,” said the president. “People will lose their jobs.”

The sequester emerged from the debt ceiling standoff of 2011, when Congress approved $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over 10 years to be triggered in 2013 if Democrats and Republicans could not forge a compromise on deficit reduction. The across-the-board cuts of 7.3 percent to military spending and 5.1 percent to domestic spending were designed to be so severe that neither party would swallow them. Obama has proposed an alternative plan of $900 billion in targeted spending cuts and $600 billion in new revenue from the closure of tax loopholes, but congressional Republicans say they gave Obama a tax increase on the wealthy in December, and insist that any deficit-reduction alternative to the sequester consist wholly of spending cuts. “The revenue debate is now closed,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

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What the editorials said

Sequestration is now inevitable, said The Washington Post. Just days before it hits, “neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position.” So “bring on the unemployment,” said The New York Times. Slashing federal spending indiscriminately means fewer jobs for soldiers, Head Start teachers, air-traffic controllers, and cancer researchers. Americans are about to learn the true impact of the “Republican rampage against government.”

Don’t listen to the “Chicken Little warnings,” said the Chicago Tribune. Cutting $85 billion from our $3.5 trillion budget amounts to a “mere rounding error.” Our debt-ridden government vitally needs this relatively mild dose of fiscal medicine. Obama intends to make the sequester more painful than it needs to be, said The Wall Street Journal, by “shutting down vital services first,” so the public revolts. But no one ever said cutting spending was going to be easy—and in the long run, “the economy will be better for it.”

What the columnists said

What an “absurd, discrediting way to run a government,” said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. Sequestration hacks away at essential and inessential services alike, be it treatment for AIDS patients or farm subsidies. Worse, it doesn’t address the biggest driver of our debt—the “ballooning costs of entitlement programs.” Let’s not forget the “small matter” of scuttling our national defense, said William Kristol in The U.S. Navy recently announced that the sequester had forced it to reduce its aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from two to one. To our enemies, it’s proof that “America’s power is permanently waning.”

Do the Republicans really want this fight? said Jonathan Bernstein in They insist the sequester was originally Obama’s idea, but he’s now saying he wants to avert the cuts, while Republicans are welcoming them. With Congress’s approval ratings firmly in “used car salesman territory,” it’s not hard to guess who most voters will blame when the pain becomes real.

It won’t be just the people who lose their jobs who will be hurt, said John Cassidy in Our economy is finally coming back to life. But our dysfunctional government “is now the biggest single threat to the recovery.” The last thing we need now is another few months of rancorous political haggling, accompanied by a sudden, drastic drop in government spending. If you want to see where that goes, look at Italy and Britain—now in recession.

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