Go Ahead, Pull the Trigger

Why the Super Committee should allow its automatic deficit-reduction mechanism to work.

History shows that Congress can’t be trusted to control spending, much less cut it. Neither can the bipartisan committees it so often creates to reduce the deficit when Congress has failed. But what about automatic spending cuts scheduled to occur when the committee process inevitably fails? Sadly, they can’t be entirely trusted either. But they might still be the best hope we have.

This summer’s long-haggled debt deal called for the creation of a bipartisan “Super Committee” tasked with finding and recommending $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. The process itself was intended to be relatively speedy, at least by Washington standards. Recommendations were due by Thanksgiving, and Congress would be required to vote up or down by the end of the year. At least, that is, if the recommendations ever arrived.

It was a familiar ploy—designate a bipartisan committee to make tough decisions behind closed doors that legislators had proven otherwise unwilling to make, pat yourselves on the back for having taken action, then hope no one one notices when the committee fails to agree on savings. In fact, it was so familiar that Congress had to create a fallback mechanism designed to reassure people that it was serious this time.

That mechanism became known as a “trigger”—an automatic budget cut of about $1.1 trillion to a wide variety of spending programs, including Medicare and defense, set to take place automatically. These cuts, which are made through a process known as sequestration, in which previously authorized spending is withheld from agencies, are often referred to as “across-the-board-cuts.” But as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) points out, a number of major programs, including Social Security and Medicaid, are exempt from the cuts, and the trend has been to categorize more and more spending as protected over the years.

No one knows exactly what sort of cuts would come from a sequester. The CBO admits its estimates are imperfect because the actual process would be managed by the administration, which hasn’t released detailed plans. The following chart, prepared by Mercatus Center Senior Research Fellow and Reason columnist Veronique de Rugy, shows what the cuts might look like:

Despite the steady wave of protections and carve outs, the hope is that the prospect of Medicare cuts will motivate Democrats to deal while potential defense spending reductions will put the fear of God—or at least Lockheed Martin—into Republicans.

Buried in this idea is the assumption that such reductions are somehow unthinkable. But these are hardly dramatic cuts. Some Democrats have cried foul about the potential Medicare cuts, but they’re capped at 2 percent, which would barely make a dent in the program’s rapidly growing spending.

Republicans, meanwhile, are up in arms about the fact that the biggest cuts would come from the defense budget. Earlier this month, GOP members of the House Armed Service Committee issued just a single, predictable recommendation to the deficit panel: Don’t cut defense spending. "We've gone past cutting into the muscle. And if these other hits come from the trigger, if the super committee is not able to do their work, and the sequestration cuts in we're into the bone and it's all over,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon said.

But the maximum total cut possible cut to the defense budget is about $850 billion by 2021. The effect would be to leave the United States responsible for 40 percent of total global military spending, while returning defense spending back to levels not seen since the dark days of...2007. Does anyone actually believe we were defenseless in 2007—or that we’d become so by capping defense spending at 2007 levels over the coming decade?

Even with the sequester, though, America may remain defenseless against endless spending increases. Republicans are already attempting to get the Super Committee to accept a troop drawdown—a now-classic budget gimmick that calls for the Congressional Budget Office to score overseas troop reductions that were already scheduled to occur—in place of actual defense cuts.

Nor is the history very reassuring. A similar attempt to reduce the deficit through sequestration in the 1980s failed to reach its budget targets. And as Stan Collender, author of The Guide to the Federal Budget, pointed out in August, budget deals don’t have a very strong track record. Indeed, he notes, they have “always been changed, waived, ignored or abandoned long before they were scheduled to expire.”

The ideal outcome from the Super Committee would be a deal to reduce spending even more than the sequestration process calls for. But with predictable gridlock between panel members over taxes and entitlements already setting in, that doesn’t seem likely. Sequestration may not be perfect, but, even with its limitations, it’s probably the best plausible result. So go ahead, Super Committee. Pull that trigger.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

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  • anon||


  • ||

    That's a mistake. I treasure these moments with Hercule.

  • ||

    There's no question in my mind that the government will nullify the "automatic" cuts. The only thing to be worked out is what song-and-dance will be used to "prove" that the politicians haven't punked out yet again.

  • PIRS||

    Bread and circuses! We had to do it so we could pay for all of the bread and circuses that our constituents demand of us!

  • Bread and circuses...||

    ...placate the victims of privation property.

  • ||

    Their bread is moldy and their circuses are lame. The lions just lay around and fart, and the clowns aren't funny.

  • Then it is the end...||

    ...of the capitalist scam.

    In the age of the internet, victims of capitalist greed must be placated well.

  • Government entitlements...||

    ...placate the victims of the big-government Land enTItlement program.

    Georgism (geoism) is the answer.

    Georgism (also called Geoism and Geonomics) is an economic philosophy and ideology that holds that people own what they create, but that things found in nature, most importantly land, belongs equally to all.

    Even William F. Buckley knew it.

    William F. Buckley the Georgist

  • k2000k||

    Ok I'll bit white indian. Under this so called Georgism, what happens say if I want to create a wooden chair or bed, naturally I won't keep it in one spot I'll move it around; obviously the chair or bed is mine, but what if I want to chop down a tree for wood? What if someone else says no you can't chop down that tree because I don't want you too? And knowing Human nature this sort of conflict is an inevitablity. One of us will start to claim ownership of that tree. To think otherwise isn't realisitc. And saying that the tree belongs to everybody or no one is just code word for saying it belongs to the state.

  • Geolibertarianism primer||

  • The only honest libertarian...||

    ...addresses rent-seeking for natural resources that should be a human's birthright.

    How is it that a child born on the earth must pay other humans rent to eat and survive?

    Capitalism is slavery!

  • Please insert coins for AIR||

    Or just die already.

    "The free market means that those without money to buy what they need do not have the right to live." - John McMurtry

  • Appalachian Australian||

    Children born on earth must be cute enough to convince their parents that feeding them is a good idea.

  • CrackertyAssCracker||

    No. Don't feed this troll. It doesn't have an actual point. It doesn't want to actually discuss anything. It just wants to be fed. So don't feed it.

  • There is no "we"||

    Shorter CrackertyAssCracker:

    "I've got nothing in rebuttal."

  • Appalachian Australian||

    I considered myself a Georgist (considering it the least insidious of all forms of taxation) until White Indian embraced it.

    I now feel guilt by association.

    (I used to read newsletters from the Henry George society as a kid. One of my mother's friends was a member. No idea why; she was a shut-in who never left her house.)

  • My Bruvah!||

  • cynical||

    Georgism still assumes those invisible lines that denote individual control of areas of land (to avoid the tragedy of the commons problem, etc.), it just requires payment of taxes. You know, like many states and cities do right now. If you're suggesting we get rid of all taxes other than on land, shit, go for it. I got your back.

  • ||

    There's no question in my mind that the government will nullify the "automatic" cuts.

    Exactly. I think that there will be an agreement though. The agreement will be a big pile of steaming pile of dog shit that will have more gimmicks than a rube goldberg machine.

  • Art Vandelay||

    Oh. The worthless faux Justice League.

    The one with Crab-Face Boy in it.

  • ||

    Is the disheveled gruff amputee an improvement over the effeminate Hanna Barbara version?

  • ||

    I never believed they would agree. The trigger provides cover to both sides when their benefactors don't get what they paid for.

    AND it's a great way to make some cash from lobbyists in the mean time.

    It's 1789 Paris folks... why aren't we taking heads?


  • Appalachian Australian||

    Well, government lobbying just got a whole lot more efficient since only 12 people need to be lobbied, not 535.

    Why don't we just go to a super-committee of 1 person who is also the President? We could call it a "super-chairman". Or a "super-chancellor."

  • sevo||

    "Why don't we just go to a super-committee of 1 person who is also the President?"
    I can think of a *lot* of reasons!

  • ||

    The Seven > The Justice League

  • ||

    Does anyone actually believe we were defenseless in 2007?

    No. But what we were is badly overextended, with a whole lot of troops serving way more time overseas than they should. In 2007 spending was insufficient to the mission, and the difference was made up by squeezing volunteers in the armed forces (and at home). That's not a reasonable long-term plan.

    If you really want to go back to 2007 levels of spending, you also need to go back to 1999 levels of force commitment.

    By me the real obscenity here is protecting Medicaid and disability SS from sequestration. Those are both charity programs, providing disability checks monthly to 44-year-old women "too depressed" to work, and paying for their kid's trip to the ER to manage the sniffly nose and 102 fever because, helas!, with no work comes no health insurance and no regular doc.

    Military defense, whether higher or lower than "reasonable," whatever that might be, is a duty of the Federal government under the Constitution. Charity for the citizens of the several states is not.

    Medicaid and disability SS should be terminated entirely, as these are state and local responsibilities. They are, furthermore, the fastest-growing entitlements, much faster than old-age pensions or Medicare.

  • ||

    As if cuts of $120 billion per year mean diddley-squat. Reducing Federal spending - some Federal spending, by less than 10% per year doesn't get the job done. Think about your own household budgets. If you were borrowing 40% of your current expenditures and had reached the point where your debt repayment equalled over 50% of your income (non-borrowed), would a measley 10% reduction per year do anything for you? No. So why in hell do you think it will do anything for the Feds? Or for us? 'Business as usual' is in charge. Vote out all the incumbents, except maybe those who were elected in '10, vote for Cain & Paul - choose either one for Prexy and the other for Vice - and just kick out the country club Republicans and the communists who are in the Democratic party and get the nation back up on its feet. Or not and watch it melt slowly into a nation that looks like Detroit.

  • Lucretia ||

    The comic is very lively


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