Politics & Policy

Why the Sequester Had to Die

It was a success, which is why Congress got rid of it.

Sequester, we hardly knew ye.

The omnibus budget deal slithering its way toward President Barack Obama’s desk for signing abandons the automatic spending cuts that resulted from an earlier fiscal compromise. Why was the sequester abandoned? Like the Gramm-Rudman Act a generation earlier, the sequester had to be stopped for one fundamental, undeniable, bipartisan reason.

It worked.

It did not work perfectly, and it did not balance the budget or put us on course for a balanced budget. But it did play a critical role in nudging the deficit away from “catastrophic existential threat” territory and toward “terrifying money-suck.” It did this in part by forcing Republicans to accept cuts in military spending, which they are not normally much inclined to do. (It goes without saying that the Democrats are categorically hostile to spending reductions.) Because we cannot rely for very long upon the better angels of congressional nature, these statutory limits are always destined to be short-lived, which should be of some concern to us: Experience shows that when Congress agrees to a budget-control deal, the first thing it does is begin looking for opportunities to undermine that deal.

For what? Among the items that will be funded in the deal is a 1 percent pay raise for hourly federal workers, an identical raise for salaried workers already having been approved. The average wage for a single hourly federal worker amounts to more than the average household income in the United States. When the total compensation package is considered, both salaried and hourly federal workers are grossly overpaid — if you doubt that, then let them negotiate wages in an open market and see whether they go up or go down. We should be reducing their wages and, more important, reducing the number of them on the federal payroll: Given the structure of federal compensation, it is more important to reduce headcounts than to reduce individual wages.

Of course, the Democrats have never met a government employee they did not like and wish to see be fruitful and multiply, but the Republicans are suspect here, too: The great majority of federal hourly workers are employed by the Department of Defense, where Republicans, gimlet-eyed in so many other areas, see little opportunity for savings in national security. Our friend Bill Kristol has argued that getting defense funds flowing is reason enough to back a budget deal.

Worse, such defense savings as have been proffered are small beer attached to PR nightmares, such as the reduction in cost-of-living benefits for military survivors and some injured veterans. The biggest, most varied, most expensive national-security apparatus in the history of human civilization, and that’s where we find excess? That is going to be difficult to defend, and unnecessary: A presidential commission already has been empaneled to study the question of compensation and pension reform. Republicans are volunteering for a beating on this issue.

Beyond the substance, there are matters of form here that are disappointing as well: Republicans plan to move forward on the bill immediately, in violation of their earlier pledge to allow at least 72 hours for the review of omnibus spending bills. And the fact that we still have these grand-bargain omnibus spending bills is a testament to Congress’s failure to return to regular order when it comes to appropriations.

Given the relatively weak position of the GOP — Democrats run the Senate and the White House, to say nothing of the media, in which this fight will be adjudicated — any deal was going to be a disappointing compromise, but this is a more disappointing compromise than is necessary. While the excesses of unified Democratic government under the Obama-Reid-Pelosi axis showed that Democrats cannot be trusted to prudently manage the nation’s finances, Republicans have not yet persuasively made the case to the American people that they can do any better, and hoping for a victory by default is foolish. Republicans are not in a great negotiating position at the moment, but it is the same position they’re going to be in when they have to visit the issue again, in the runup to this year’s elections.

Half-a-loaf deals are fine when that’s the best you can get, but this deal on balance leaves the country worse off than it would have been under the sequester — not the sort of loaf you want to be offering up when you’re trying to reclaim your reputation as the party of fiscal rectitude.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.


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