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Editorial: Price of failure on sequester

It may be a dumb idea that almost nobody really likes, but sequestration — a plan to make mandatory, across-the-board cuts totaling $85 billion to parts of the federal budget — nonetheless went into effect Friday.

And for that, the American people can rightly blame the ongoing inability of President Obama and Congressional lawmakers to hash out their differences, find common ground and come up with solutions to the nation’s budget problems.

What we’ve seen and heard instead is endless finger-pointing and overheated rhetoric.

Republicans have, time and again, cited their resistance to tax increases and repeated well-worn claims about reining in what they see as runaway government spending, while downplaying the role government must play during a still-fragile economic recovery.

Democrats, meanwhile, have engaged in some over-the-top exaggerations of their own about a post-sequester world that’s militarily weakened and nearly devoid of teachers, first responders, border patrol agents, food safety inspectors and air traffic controllers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s claim, for example, that sequestration was already leading school districts to start pink-slipping teachers didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The pollsters say that millions of Americans have simply tuned out this ongoing spectacle — and who can blame them?

The Obama administration and congressional leaders agreed to sequestration in 2011 mostly because they thought that its heavy-handed, poorly thought out automatic cuts would never go into effect.

Sequestration was, essentially, adopted to ensure that both sides would find a way to negotiate a budget deal to address the need for increased revenue and for entitlement reform, especially in health care spending.

The sequester does nothing to move the country closer to either of those goals.

What it does is set in motion cuts that will affect both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, cuts that will weaken programs that have already seen substantial reductions in recent years. Even worse, these are one-size-fits-all cuts that will be made without the flexibility and discretion needed to ensure that they do the least harm.

They will affect many federal agencies, federal contractors and civilian defense employees. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and veterans benefits are, for the most part, exempt.

The consensus among economists and government analysts is that the sequester will not have an immediate, disastrous impact.

But that’s no reason to cheer, since the long-term impact of sequestration may prove equally corrosive. Its impact will be felt gradually — as furloughs begin, for example — and as the ripple effects of declining consumer spending and the losses of state income and sales taxes take root.

Its effects in time will likely spill over to schools, law enforcement departments and businesses that hold contracts with the federal government.

On Friday, President Obama and Congressional leaders held an unproductive meeting that lasted less than an hour.

Afterward, House Speaker John Boehner, signaling continuing Republican intransigence, said the discussion of future tax hikes was “over.”

President Obama restated his belief in a balanced approach that combines careful, targeted spending cuts and tax hikes, particularly by closing loopholes.

From the start of this saga, Obama’s approach has been on the right track. It may not be his fault that he has failed to bring the other side along, but it’s everyone’s loss.

“This is not a win for anybody,” the president said. On that score, he’s right.

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