March 1 was the day that the unthinkable became the inevitable, followed shortly by settling into the routine. It was the Day of Sequestration.
On that day, $85 billion in federal spending was eliminated in one great across-the-board swoop. It was, as President Obama reminded Americans multiple times in January and February, the Policy That Was Never Supposed to Be Implemented. What was designed to be so unappealing that members of Congress and the administration would never allow it to go into effect had ended up setting off one great national shrug of the shoulders.
And as another funding deadline loomed at the end of March, here’s what people were talking about: whether President Obama had overplayed his hand politically (pull that aircraft carrier back from the Persian Gulf!), the extent to which cuts actually would be felt by Americans (get ready for long lines at airports!) and, a distant third, the impact the sequester would have on federal employees facing furloughs (enjoy your unpaid time off!).
But here’s what wasn’t talked about much at all: The overall effect of implementing a sequester on the operations of government. Because that’s rarely part of the conversation.
If the discussion were to take place, it would have to start with acknowledging a dirty little secret: Government probably can absorb $85 billion in cuts without widespread ill effects on people other than its own employees. It wouldn’t be easy, or painless, but a genuine exercise in identifying areas to cut or put off new spending could identify savings. Better yet, political leaders could sit down and have a serious conversation about what programs we simply must live without until our fiscal house is in order.
That’s unlikely to happen. Instead, the nation’s political leaders dumped an order on agencies that called for sweeping cuts and offered vague instructions about how to implement it. Federal managers then commenced spending large amounts of time figuring out what to do. They started negotiating with labor unions over every aspect of furloughs. They began determining what an across-the-board cut in “programs, projects and activities” actually means-—since it’s never been tried on this scale before. And they faced the prospect of addressing uncertainty across virtually the entire federal workforce.
Let’s be clear: None of this will add value for taxpayers. It will just be a long, complicated exercise in making the best of a ridiculous situation. That’s true whether or not you think government can afford to take an $85 billion hit.
In February, the Government Accountability Office released its high-risk list of federal programs. As usual, while a few items were dropped from the list (with almost no fanfare), new problems, such as dealing with the effects of climate change, were added. Can agencies expect to tackle them while absorbing across-the-board cuts? Not really.
However the exercise of implementing a sequester plays out, it’s almost guaranteed to result in the kind of vicious cycle that is all too common in Washington. As projects get put on hold or fall behind schedule, agencies will be subject to criticism from their overseers on Capitol Hill that they’re not getting the job done in an efficient and effective manner.
It’s hard not to view this as an absurd win-win for lawmakers: They get to create the circumstances under which it is very difficult for agencies to succeed, then hold hearings to spout righteous indignation when they fail.
The real losers in this scenario aren’t just the federal employees and managers who try to run the programs. It’s the Americans who pay for them.