In the days leading up to Friday's sequester deadline, President Obama and Administration officials ratcheted up their dire warnings over the impact of automatic spending cuts. Speaking at a press conference Friday, just hours before he would sign an order implementing the cuts, Obama sighed that "starting tomorrow" janitors at the U.S. Capitol would see their pay cut. It was a climactic lie to cap a week of distortions, misinformation, and overheated rhetoric.
The Administration loudly warned that the sequester's "meat cleaver" would immediately, upon enactment, cut through basic government services. Airport delays would stretch into hours, teachers and firefighters would lose their jobs, kids and seniors would lose meals, criminals would be released and the ranks of the unemployed would swell. And, that was just the appetizer. It was such a dystopian portrait, that I admit part of me was curious to watch that play out. It turns out, though, that these claims were some deal less than true.
I realized something was up when, days before the sequester deadline, NPR started emphasizing the "long term" negative consequences of the cuts. Gone were fears of immediate pain; now in vogue were the future opportunity costs of reduced medical and scientific research. They cautioned that, even if we didn't immediately feel the cuts, they were, in fact, going to be bad...eventually.
Politico buried this lede in its featured article on Saturday (Politico is where ledes go to die):
The impact of the cuts wouldn’t have been felt until well after the current resolution expires March 27, leaving Democrats in a weak position to try to use the government funding fight as a vehicle for replacing the sequester.
So, after three weeks of life in the sequester, any pain from the cuts would be so faint Obama wouldn't have any political leverage to replace them.
For Obama and the Democrats, all federal dollars are sacred. To most of us, though, a 2% reduction from planned spending doesn't sound so draconian. Especially since the 2% figure is itself misleading. Just under half the total $85 Billion in cuts come from "outlays", i.e. actual spending this fiscal year. The rest of the cuts are from "budget authority," i.e. authority to commit to spending this year that will actually be paid out in future years.
Let's say I was planning to sign a contract for a vacation rental next Spring. The rental will cost $2,000, payable next year. Instead I decide not to sign the contract. If I were the federal government, I would have just "cut" my budget, this year, by $2,000. "Cuts" like these make up more than half the sequester.
Obama is boxed into a tricky political corner. His warnings, dutifully reported by the stenographers in the press, were a bluff. They were designed to get the GOP to cave and accept higher taxes in exchange for replacing the cuts. When it was clear the GOP wasn't going to budge and the cuts were going to happen, some media outlets decided to do their own reporting. Not in the interest of truth, mind you, but to have ready stories to pummel the GOP. It was then they began questioning Obama's sequester yarns.
Obama and the Democrats are in dangerous territory. After such dire warnings about the cuts, if, as is likely, nothing really happens, the public may decide it could live with a little bit more cutting. It will put to lie the Democrats' long-standing tactic of predicting immediate doom if spending is ever cut.
In the coming days, expect a danse macabre of "victims" of the sequester. Whatever new fairy tales Obama tells, they certainly will be far less scary than those he told last week.
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