Published for NRO, February 27, 2013
The White House has argued that the March 1 sequester of federal spending — a cut of approximately 5 percent from the domestic-spending programs covered by the sequester requirement, along with 8 percent cuts to defense programs — will bring about the most dire of consequences. According to the president, “this meat-cleaver approach . . . will jeopardize our military readiness [and] eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research.”
Maybe more alarmingly, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget issued a press release earlier this month claiming that the cuts in federal spending “could” force reductions in food inspections, which “could” lead to outbreaks of more food-borne bacteria, such as E. coli. Administration officials and their allies are making similarly alarming claims regarding what “could” happen to workplace safety, law enforcement, and education.
It seems clear that the administration has the capacity to make sequestration’s impact excessively unpleasant, and these statements could make one wonder whether the administration is determined to do so. But does a sequester have to be disastrous? Could the White House wield the scheduled cuts in such a way as to minimize the impact felt by the American people? Our experience inside the executive branch suggests that this is indeed the case: The administration could have prepared for the sequester in ways that would steer cuts toward less sensitive programs and activities. In fact, it still has the capacity to adjust some, although certainly not all, of the ways in which the sequester is applied.
Let’s start with the big picture. The total amount of the sequester’s cuts — $85 billion in 2013 — is just 2.4 percent of a $3.6 trillion budget. Even with the cuts, total spending in 2013 will exceed what was spent in 2012. Indeed, federal spending has been roughly $600 billion higher during the last four years than it was in 2008, and the sequester will hardly offset that overall increase. The size of the sequester barely exceeds the $80 billion or so of new spending that was recently appropriated for Hurricane Sandy relief.
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