What Scares Sequester Opponents the Most? That Spending Reductions Won't Hurt At All


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Sequester opponents, including the White House, congressional Democrats, and a slew of industry lobbying groups who stand to lose from the reductions, have issued all manner of hyperbolic warnings about the doom that will surely afflict us all should the spending reductions go into effect March 2: It will hurt small businesses run by women, slowdown meat production (sorry, paleo-dieters), cause the Air Force to fly less, and, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu "could"—could!—"weaken efforts to become more energy independent." 

The display of spending-cut scare tactics offer a window in the worldview of those who seem to believe that government spending is the fuel on which the economy runs, and to undertake any kind of federal spending reduction at all is to start a journey to an apocalyptic hellscape. One can only imagine what they'd say about a package that, unlike the sequester, actually cut spending over the next decade, or even just held it flat at current levels.

If you want a clue as to what some sequester opponents fear the most, though, check out what health care lobbyist Emily Holubowich, who represents 3,000 nonprofits opposed to the sequester, told The Washington Post on Saturday: "The good news is, the world doesn't end March 2. The bad news is, the world doesn't end March 2," she said. "The worst-case scenario for us is the sequester hits and nothing bad really happens. And Republicans say: See, that wasn't so bad."

That's the real fear here: not that sequestration will result in terrible things happening, but that it won't result in very much at all, that few will notice or be deeply upset by its effects, and that people will learn to live with a government that spends very slightly less than it was planning to over the next ten years (though still far more than it did for the vast majority of the last decade).

It's worth remembering, too, that sequester opponents are mostly fretting about a small share of the sequester—the $85 billion in reductions to this year's budget, only about $44 billion of which would actually go into effect this year. But smaller-scale reductions have to be fought as much, maybe even more, as the big cuts, because it's the smaller reductions that pose the biggest threat to the endless expansion of federal spending: Not only are smaller reductions the most likely to happen, they're also the most likely to reveal that the world goes on, and the economy doesn't collapse, even if Washington decides not to spend a buck or two of your money.  

In his radio address this weekend, President Obama practically pleaded with Congress to kill sequestration's "abitrary" cuts. "Here's the thing," he said. And the thing turned out to be that, "These cuts don't have to happen. Congress can turn them off anytime." All Congress has to do is compromise. Obama then treated listeners to a litany of potential sequestration terribles: delayed deployment of an aircraft carrier group, parents having to find childcare for their children, cutbacks to airport security. (Should we take that as a threat that the Transportation Security Administration will be even worse? Is that even possible?)

The White House and its allies have spent a lot of energy issuing warnings about all the awful, miserable, no-good things that might happen if sequestration kicks in. But are they really interested in easing the supposed pain sequestration will inflict?

Despite calls for compromise and complaints that the cuts are blunt and not well targeted, the Obama administration has indicated that it is uninterested in a floated GOP proposal that would allow federal agency heads and managers more flexibility to implement the sequester reductions as they see fit, focusing the budget restrictions on programs and expenditures they deem less critical. So is the real worry that the sequester will be bad? Or that it won't be bad enough?