The run-up to Washington’s latest manufactured budget crisis closely follows the script for a generic Road Runner cartoon. Wile E. Coyote arranges for an Acme safe to be hurled off a cliff over Road Runner’s favorite route through the cartoon desert. Mr. Coyote’s timing is off, the Road Runner zips through unscathed and Wile E. goes down to investigate. He looks up and gets clobbered by the tardy safe.
In the sequester cartoon unfolding in our nation’s capital, the budget safe falls off the Washington Monument and everything gets squashed, including the U.S. economy.
As this is being written, President Obama is racing around the country making dire predictions about which essential federal services will be decimated if the March 1 sequester deadline is breached and $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts go into effect. The cuts are supposed to be a down-payment on $1.2 trillion in spending reductions spread over the next 10 years.
Here’s a sampling: Half of the USDA’s meat inspectors will be furloughed, forcing all of us to eat canned tuna fish; five divisions of the Armed Forces will be taken off the front lines, imperiling our national security; most of the folks who inspect our shoes, belt buckles and nail clippers at airports will be sent home, adding three hours to the average boarding time for air travel. And so on and so forth.
The president is so busy spinning these visions of gloom and doom he usually neglects to point out that he signed the law creating the sequester in the first place. This happened during an earlier pre-fabricated budget showdown in 2011, which featured a threatened default on the national debt and resulted in the first-ever downgrade of the United States’ AAA credit rating.
To sort out fact from fiction, we think it’s useful to check some non-partisan sources. Unfortunately, their prognostications are just as dire as the stuff coming from the political combatants in Washington.
According to a study issued last fall by the Aerospace Industry Association, the sequester will cost the U.S. more than two million jobs by the end of next year, reduce the nation’s GDP by $215 billion this year, decrease personal earnings of the workforce by $109 billion and send the unemployment rate spiraling back up over 9 percent.
Because nearly half of the automatic sequester cuts are earmarked to hit the Pentagon’s budget, the job-loss pain will be felt most severely in states that are home to the aerospace/defense industry and other critical military supply-chain facilities. At the top of the list are California (an estimated 225,464 jobs lost), Virginia (207,571), Texas (159,473)), Maryland (114,795) and Florida (79,459).
A consensus of independent analysts warns that the U.S. is poised to plunge back into the depths of the Great Recession if the folks in Washington don’t get their act together.
Partisans on both sides of this drama think they have a failsafe mechanism which will enable us to step aside at the last second and avoid getting crushed by the sequester safe. It’s called a continuing resolution. The script goes something like this:
Step One: The sequester goes into effect and the country writhes in agony as thousands are sent to the unemployment lines (and contaminated meat flows into supermarkets).
Step Two: President Obama and Republicans in Congress stage a month-long orgy of recriminations, each trying to pin the blame for the crisis on the other guy.
Step Three: Congress passes a continuing resolution in April restoring most of the cuts in exchange for a non-binding agreement to raise the retirement age to 85 in 2040 and everyone declares victory.
Of course, even if this outcome is realized, neither side has bothered to calculate the impact of their cartoon drama on the U.S. economy and our sputtering recovery. There’s a distinct possibility that another two months of bickering in this latest fake crisis could by itself extinguish glimmers of business and consumer confidence and spawn a very real Recession not unlike the downturn we recently emerged from. Then federal tax revenues will plunge, the budget deficit will explode and our long-term debt will exponentially increase — the exact opposite of what Congressional leaders claim they were trying to accomplish when they enacted the sequester.
This grim prospect has prompted calls for a ceasefire from some unexpected quarters. Even Karl Rove, Secretary of Political Warfare under President George W. Bush, is urging a compromise of sorts. In an Op-Ed piece this week, Rove suggested that Congress immediately pass a continuing resolution authorizing spending for the rest of the year, capping federal funding at sequester levels and giving President Obama the authority to decide where the cuts will be made to avoid the most onerous reductions. With his usual Machiavellian flourish, Rove’s solution would appease Democrats who want to avoid cuts to social programs like Head Start, while enabling Republicans to place the blame for Defense spending cuts directly on the president’s lap.
The most sage advice we can offer is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
At least one state appears to be acting on this suggestion: A bill making its way through the Montana legislature offers Montanans an alternative to the tainted meat that may fill supermarket shelves if federal meat inspectors are sent home. The Montana House of Representatives passed a bill last week, introduced by State Rep. Steve Lavin, to allow “game animals, fur-bearing animals, migratory game birds and upland game birds” who have been killed by a car to be harvested for food.
That’s right, they’re making it legal to eat roadkill. To which we can only say, in the immortal response of Wile E. Coyote staring up at the looming Acme safe: