Why hasn't the American public risen up in fury at Republicans over the sequester's annoyances and inconveniences, as President Obama had clearly hoped? Because the annoying things about the sequester perfectly play into decades worth of Republican talking points about government being dumb and wasteful and run by people who lack basic common sense. As Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader who helped pass Newt Gingrich's Contract with America and then lead FreedomWorks, the organization that planted the seeds of the Tea Party, liked to say, "The market is rational, the government is dumb." Over the last several decades, the big fight in Washington has been between people who think government can help the economy and those who think it can only hinder it. In his State of the Union, Obama called on the government to make "investments" in infrastructure, education, and science. "Get government out of the way, and this economy will come roaring back," Mike Pence said on the House floor in 2010.
As we've been told many times, the sequester was designed to be dumb. Though it requires differing cuts in various spending categories, the sequester only reduces spending by a mere 2.2 percent of the budget this year — just $85 billion — but mandates that the cuts come from nearly every government program. The government will not shut down during the sequester, but it will make thousands upon thousands of small cuts to meet the sequester's requirements. Some of these are painful. For instance, we've hear a lot about the FAA flight controllers being furloughed (part of the time) which lead to flight delays. ABC News ran through some of the other inane decisions: states are sending out smaller unemployment benefit checks, Meals on Wheels programs are delivering fewer meals to the elderly, the FDA will conduct 2,100 fewer food inspections, the U.S. Geological Survey is shutting down some of its streamgate stations which it uses to predict floods.
The cuts are widespread and painful for those affected, but they are also not nearly as dramatic as the factoids produced by a complete government shutdown. (Sad schoolchildren can't go to national parks! Travelers can't get passports!) In the past, shutdowns have played relatively well for Democrats, who get to remind people of the good things government does, while Republicans look mean for depriving us of those things. The sequester is instead forcing government to make dumb choices that only reinforce the idea that the government can't make common-sense choices.
The idea was that this was such an irrational way to run a government that Congress would desperately come up with a better compromise. "Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument," reads a legal analaysis from the Office of Management and Budget. "With the single exception of military personnel accounts, the Administration cannot choose which programs to exempt, or what percentage cuts to apply. These matters are dictated by a detailed statutory scheme." In other words, across-the-board spending cuts really means across the board: managers cannot prioritize which things are more important. To indulge in a personal budget analogy, if you sequestered yourself and had to trim your monthly expenses by 2 percent, you couldn't simply eat out less often and skip Starbucks on the way into work. You would instead have to figure out a way to spend 2 percent less on your groceries, electric bill, gas money, gym membership, clothes, magazine subscriptions, movies, and every other thing you buy. The sequester may not cut spending by much, but it is designed to be a huge pain. As Slate's Fred Kalplan reported earlier this year, for the Pentagon, which needs to cut 9 percent from "non-exempt discretionary defense funding," it means that "every single program, project, and activity—every line item in the Pentagon budget, from the biggest weapon system to the smallest spare part—has to be cut by that same 9 percent." Does that sound dumb? That's because it's supposed to be dumb.
We all remember that the sequester was supposed to be so horrible that Congress would be so desperate to stop it that it would come up with some kind of bargain to raise taxes and lower spending. But the way the sequester actually works has been largely forgotten by many people, including some in Congress. On Monday night, The Daily Show had a particularly brutal tape of Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky embarrassing himself when he was grilling the Federal Aviation Administration's Michael Heurta about sequester-related flight delays. "How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand?" Rogers asked. "Not a word, not a breath -- you didn't give us any forewarning this was coming." That's actually a big fat lie. The Daily Show aired clips of news reports warning of delays back in February, and Huerta explained the FAA had warned major hubs would feel delays. Rogers, having been exposed as another pol too bored by the sequester to pay attention to what it would do, responded with this killer zinger: "Well la-ti-da."
Rogers isn't the only one who didn't bother to figure out how the sequester worked. There's also the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which complained in March that the White House had cancelled tours, but divisions of the Agriculture Department funded conferences on small farms and community health. The Journal said:
Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn noted in a Tuesday letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that while these conferences may be "fun," or "even educational," they reveal an agency unable to set priorities that serve taxpayers as opposed to its own bureaucratic interests.
Yes, they are unable to set priorities. Because that was the design of the sequester! The Agriculture Department said its furlough of meat inspectors would shut down meat production for 11 days, so in late March, Obama signed a bill giving the Agriculture Department $55 million — most of what the sequester took away. An anonymous Republican House aide told The Washington Post that would be a problem, because making everyone feel the dumb pain "was the whole point of sequestration to begin with."
The campaign for fixes has continued. A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune's editorial board raged about how perfectly avoidable the sequester's flight delays were:
Over the year and a half since President Barack Obama signed the law that required spending curbs through sequestration in 2013, you haven't seen the FAA, or its parent the Transportation Department, or its parent the White House, trying to absorb a relatively small budget cut in ways that would least inconvenience fliers and least imperil the U.S. economy.
They are correct: It was supposed to be an inconvenience! That is what Republicans and Democrats agreed to in 2011. But the Detroit News' Henry Payne agreed the dumbness was optional:
The Divider-in-Chief’s sequester strategy has been a flop thus far, but the president is stubbornly staying the course. This week he’s forcing flight delays on America’s busy traveling public.
The sequester was designed to suck. But Congress has decided that in some ways, it sucks too much. It has now passed a law fixing the cuts to the FAA, most likely because long flight delays were super annoying to politicians who have to fly back and forth from Washington. According to The Hill, there are "some Democrats" who think these fixes are only making it less likely that the sequester will be rescinded. But they are missing the larger flaw in their plan: the sequester is making the government (and by extension Obama) look dumb, not mean.
House Republicans were considering a government shutdown, but they scrapped those plans. They decided not to fight over the debt limit, either. A Gingrichian government shutdown -- not to mention throwing the world economy into crisis over the debt ceiling -- would have made Republicans look petty and irrational. Instead, they've proven that the government is stupid and inefficient. They did that by passing a law forcing the federal government to act as stupid and inefficiently as they've been saying all these years.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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