The Corner

George Will on Why Big Spenders Shouldn’t Fear the Sequester

Washington Post columnist George Will has a great piece today where he notes that whatever the supercommittee comes up with next week, spending will continue to go up.

Born during what is mistakenly called the debt-ceiling “debacle” last summer, the congressional supercommittee may die without agreeing to a 10-year, $1.2 trillion (at least) deficit-reduction plan. This is not properly labeled a failure. Committee Democrats demanded more revenue; Republicans offered $500 billion; Democrats responded with the one-syllable distillation of liberalism: “More!” So the committee’s work has been a clarifying event that presages a larger one — next November’s elections….

The supercommittee should by now have sent its plan to the Congressional Budget Office for “scoring” — calculation of the fiscal consequences of its proposals. The law establishing the committee requires any proposal to be published in legislative language 48 hours before Nov. 23. Not that law has much to do with fiscal matters: The Democratic-controlled Senate has not produced a budget in more than 930 days. This is just one way existing budget law is ignored.

Will correctly underscores that fears of the sequester are unwarranted.

Ignore loose talk about “draconian” spending cuts. Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center has a graph ( you should see.

It shows two lines. The top one charts spending, 2013-2021, without the sequester; the other shows spending with the sequester. Both lines are ascending. Both show annual spending rising from less than $4 trillion to more than $5 trillion. The space between them is so narrow that it is difficult to see that there are two lines. Without the sequester, spending will increase $1.7 trillion; with the sequester, spending will increase $1.6 trillion.

I know I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating (even though I will upset many of you — sorry): It seems to me that Republicans’ fears about the defense cuts in the sequester are counterproductive. No matter how you look at it, no matter what the headlines are saying, under sequestration, according to the CBO, the Department of Defense will be spending more money in 2021 than it will spend in 2013. It is also important to note that the reduction in defense spending due to the withdrawal of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are not reflected in the CBO baseline) have nothing to do with the sequester cuts.

Also, just looking at the defense budget – without the war spending — it becomes clear that any sequester cuts would come after a large increase in spending between 2001 and 2011. In FY 2001, the defense base budget was $297 billion; in FY2011, it is $526 billion. (Again, this does not include war spending.) Unless conservatives believe that every dollar in the defense budget is a necessary and effectively spent dollar — unlike the rest of the budget, where we know there is tons of waste — they shouldn’t fear sequestration.

Now, Republicans may have good reasons to be upset that defense spending will be disproportionately targeted  under sequestration. But I would remind them that the reason the sequester cuts were designed this way was to bully them into an agreement during the supercommittee negotiations by playing on their fears that any reduction in the rate of defense spending would be a terrible thing.

This strategy is obviously working. Republican members of the supercommittee are so worried about these so-called cuts to defense that they are willing to surrender on the revenue side of the negotiations. I am afraid that, with this attitude, Republicans will lose no matter what happens with the committee: Either they will have to tell their base that tax revenues had to be raised in order to get an agreement, or they will mourn over defense cuts (whether fake or real). More importantly, the signal that supercommittee Republicans are sending right now is that they are happy to increase tax revenue in order to perpetuate large increases defense spending.

Maybe a better alternative would be for Republicans to realize that they have no reason to be afraid of the sequester, since even under sequestration spending will continue to grow (even defense). When that fear is gone, they may be willing to stand their ground on the revenue side.

Much more importantly, to my mind, this debate continues to be a distraction from the fact that a $1.2 trillion cut from the baseline is trivial and, as such, even under sequestration our country will still be on a terrible fiscal path.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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