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Is the Sequester That Awful?

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The sequester may be "dumb," as the president says, but one thing it is, is interesting. Especially the politics.

First off, it slashes defense spending, which Democrats want and most Republicans don't. With the exceptions of Hawaii and Maryland, the deepest defense cuts are being felt in the red (or purple) states so intent on shrinking government.

Irony abounds. Note the spectacle of red-state politicians fighting off tax hikes that would hit hardest on the blue states, where incomes are higher.

Let's talk about Virginia, whose economy will be most hurt by the squeeze on civilian defense jobs. Thanks to the war on terror, a civilization of gleaming new office towers had spread across its northern countryside. No doubt these people are doing useful work, some of them. But inadequate attention has been paid to what the taxpayers were getting in return.

Look at Fairfax, Arlington, Loudon, Alexandria and other government-subsidized paradises. Admire their gracious housing developments, Northern Italian eateries, Lexus vendors, Tiffany stores, Cartier representatives and other purveyors of the high life.

Of the 10 richest counties in America, six are in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. In the recent recession, unemployment in Arlington County, where the Pentagon resides, never passed 5 percent. Now, due to the sequester, 90,000 civilian defense workers based in Virginia will experience temporary layoffs, and the state could head into recession.

Republicans insist that they'd rather see this almost $1 trillion in forced social and military spending cuts over 10 years than another penny of tax revenues. That he originally supported sequestration must be a great political inconvenience to Eric Cantor, the Virginia rep now serving as Republican house majority leader.

Politics aside, it appears that the warring parties have blindly stumbled onto a way to reach the goal of cutting deficits by $4 trillion over the decade. We get there by adding the sequester, the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts started in 2011, President Obama's $700 billion tax hike on rich people and the $700 billion to be saved in interest on the debt.

While this is no way to run a railroad, the train may be reaching its destination in a fashion. So, has your correspondent lost her mind and joined the tea party?

The answer is "no." Here's where she differs radically from the Republican right:

This obsession with shrinking government makes no sense. It's pointless to brawl over whether government should be big, small or middling. We should decide what we want government to do -- and ensure that government does it in an effective way. And except in economic downturns, we should pay for that government with tax revenues.

It is not true, as many on the right insist, that raising taxes fuels government spending. The opposite is true. When you force folks to pay outright for government, they look at the bill. Borrowing the money makes it seem like a free lunch. That's how the George W. Bush administration got away with cutting taxes, running two unfunded wars and starting a new Medicare drug benefit, not a penny of it paid for.

Here's where your writer agrees with the tea party: Much government spending is wasteful. The way to address that, however, is to go into the budget, identify the unnecessary, and fight the entrenched interests living off it.

We may not always agree on what is unnecessary, but putting a bowl over the head and chopping what's hanging out is an inelegant way to do a haircut. We're stuck with this approach right now, so let's see what happens. Perhaps this lemon of a leadership can produce some lemonade, even if only by accident.
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