Those who are following the great sequestration drama might get the impression that, while this kind of federal budget management is not ideal, at least something will be done to begin to straighten out Washington’s mess.  Actually, this is far from the truth.  The 2013 budget still spends more than last year’s; there are no reforms to entitlement programs which will eventually bankrupt our kids; and the military will continue to bear the brunt of budget cuts, even as the world becomes increasingly dangerous.

The sequester is not a management idea at all, and the president is trying very hard to forget that he suggested it.  (I do not believe, however, that Republicans will ultimately win many points by relying simply on reminding folks whose idea this was, since they agreed to it.)  Sequestration is a political threat, and was never meant to be any kind of serious budgetary process, as has been pointed out by nearly everyone who has written seriously on the subject.  It’s not supposed to happen. There is a widely held view that one should never take a hostage unless prepared to sacrifice him, but widely held views do not always matter much on the northeast bank of the Potomac.

In the main, the only actual budget-cutting done by modern presidents is to the U.S. Armed Services, and this round is no exception.  Everything else is a reduction of a proposed increase.  That’s exactly how Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress balanced the budget – actual cuts to the military and hold the line on everything else. There is a formal assessment of military spending every four years, which sets out priorities and funding.  This at least provides a measuring tool and guidelines.  This administration had already cut that back with a new “strategic guidance” within the first year, so the budget numbers were headed downward before this latest Washington stork dance.

Of course there is wasted taxpayer money in the military, just like all bureaucratic operations, including the private sector, but sequestration virtually guarantees more of our money will be poorly spent because of its inflexibility. The sequestration process is a flat percentage in every account. If the Navy, for instance, was going to build five modern ships, you would imagine that the adjustment would be to just build four.  But the federal law says they have to build 13% (this year) less of each one of the five.

The budget reductions in total for this year, $44 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office, are only about a quarter of what we spent to bail out AIG. This amount does not seem very threatening to our overall security, but since you can’t cut payroll except on the civilian side, the reductions mostly impact training and modernization.  We have Air Force pilots today flying the same planes their fathers flew a generation ago.

Local school systems are smart enough to retain the flexibility to threaten band, football and musical theatre productions if they don’t get the money they ask for. The best the feds can come up with is to furlough some air traffic controllers, and hope that the resultant delays anger enough people to push the Republicans to cave in again.

The cognoscenti already know that the deal struck at New Year’s producing additional taxes on high earners, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, was spent within a couple of weeks on Hurricane Sandy relief. I keep coming back to the same irony.  The more evasion of responsibility and bad decisions we see from the seat of government, the more power they seek to fix things.

A bad bargain, in my estimation.

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