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The Real Problem With Sequestration

Nobody wants to talk about the actual ill effects of across-the-board budget cutting.

Happy Sequestration Day, everybody!

What was once unthinkable has now taken on an air (maybe stench is a more appropriate word) of inevitability. And here's what people will be talking about: whether President Obama overplayed his hand politically, the extent to which cuts actually will be felt by Americans and (a distant third) the impact this will have on federal employees facing furloughs.

But here's what won't be talked about much at all: The overall effect of implementing a sequester on the operations of government. Because that's rarely, if ever, part of the conversation.

So let's try to at least start the discussion. It begins with acknowledging the dirty little secret: Can government absorb $85 billion in  cuts without widespread ill effects on people other than agencies' own employees? Probably. 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, of course, is not what's going to happen. Instead, the Obama administration and Congress will dump an order for sweeping cuts on agencies, with vague instructions about how to implement it. This will set in motion a truly ridiculous process. Starting whenever President Obama issues his formal sequestration order, federal managers will commence spending large amounts of their time figuring out  how to execute it. They'll have to negotiate with labor unions over every aspect of employee furloughs. They'll have to go through the process of figuring out what an across-the-board cut in "programs, projects and activities" actually means -- since it's never been tried on this kind of scale before. Meanwhile, they'll have to address uncertainty in the workforce -- including the management ranks -- on a massive scale.

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 an absurd situation. That's true whether or not you think government can afford to take an $85 billion hit this year.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office released its high-risk list of federal programs. As usual, while a few items got dropped from the list (with almost no fanfare), new problems, such as dealing with the effects of climate change, got added. Can agencies expect to address 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 and others fall behind schedule, agencies will open themselves up for criticism from their overseers on Capitol Hill that they're not getting the job done in an efficient and effective manner.

I know it's cynical to say so, but 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.