Jo Comerford: The sequester bludgeon
NORTHAMPTON — Sequestration, which begins for the federal government today, is both an ugly word and hard to explain.
As a budget wonk, I like to use this metaphor: It’s as if the American people are being squeezed into the back of a dilapidated Chevy pickup. Careening down a dirt road, we’re headed for a brick wall. Try as we might to wake up from this nightmare, we cannot stop the truck.
That sounds frightening, and it is. Once sequestration kicks in, we’ll feel the impact of approximately $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts focused almost exclusively on discretionary spending.
Designed as the ultimate penalty — a bludgeon when what’s called for is a calculator — sequestration was supposed to force members of Congress to work together within a deficit reduction paradigm. It failed as a disciplinary measure for our lawmakers and it’s looking more likely to fail us all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized Americans.
Discretionary budget cuts aren’t equal. As legislated, sequestration slashes more or less evenly from what’s known as defense and non-defense discretionary spending. That sounds fair on the surface but consider that — at 57 percent of all discretionary spending — Pentagon-related federal expenditures have risen 35 percent since 2002, 48 percent when you include war costs. At the same time, non-military discretionary spending increased 8 percent, with notable reductions in funding for key social programs between 2010 and 2013.
In Massachusetts, where nearly 12 percent of residents live in poverty, approximately 18,000 are without homes, and where food insecurity affects 12 percent of families, the need won’t evaporate. The costs of addressing these — and many other — corrosive social inequities will shift to a cash-strapped state and to local governments in the form of property tax hikes and budget overrides.
Unlike the audit-dodging Pentagon, which has drawn bipartisan criticism for waste and bad management, there’s no excess to trim. Sequester cuts to depleted social initiatives will mean job loss, and the termination of services in sectors where there are already aching gaps between what’s needed and what’s offered.
Consider the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While we’ve been splitting hairs over public dollars for food and roads, the F-35 has become the most costly weapons program in U.S. history due to setbacks and delays. The cost of just one of these jets (and 2,457 are on order this year even as the fleet has been grounded because of enduring engine malfunction) is nearly equal to the entire cut projected for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program expected to take effect under sequestration.
Heat assistance already has lost 44 percent of its funding over the last four years. Community Development Block Grant funding is down 35 percent over the same period. Title I grants to schools in disproportionately low-income communities have decreased 5 percent, and on and on. According to the White House, sequestration will mean that Massachusetts will lose an additional $13.9 million in primary and secondary education funding and $13.4 million in funds for educators working with kids who have disabilities — this year alone.
And of course sequester cuts are not limited to education. The White House projects a cut of $4 million in environmental funding in the commonwealth to ensure clean water and quality air, a cut of $787,000 for job search assistance, referral and placement services, a cut of $535,000 for meals for seniors, and more.
We must not forget that budgets are about revenue and spending. Many in Congress believe that the pot of money to be spent or saved is finite. It isn’t. Yet some members have an almost mythical resistance to raising revenue at a moment when affluent individuals and big corporations have the lowest tax burden in more than half a century.
Prior to Jan. 1, the top 1 percent of income earners got a bigger annual income-tax break than the bottom 99 percent earned on average each year. Members of Congress grudgingly let most of that benefit sunset at the end of 2012. As a result, we’ll see approximately $620 billion in additional revenue over the next decade.
There’s more available. What about ending the Bush tax cuts for the second-richest 1 percent? And what about corporations? Officially, large U.S. companies are slated to pay a 35 percent tax on their profits. In practice, they pay nothing like that. In 2012, for example, corporate give-backs, loopholes and overseas tax havens cost the Treasury $165 billion.
We’d have a different national conversation right now if Congress would muster the political will to tackle tough questions like these.
The bottom line is that sequestration upends democracy. Americans deserve better than government by crisis. Through our taxes, we’re the nation’s major bill payers. Sequestration robs us — and our lawmakers — of our right and responsibility to make nuanced, thoughtful decisions about the fate of our nation.
Instead, we need a federal budget by the people, for the people.
Jo Comerford is executive director of the nonprofit National Priorities Project. A version of this essay appeared on the Institute for Policy Studies’ “OtherWords” website.