Despite the risk of boring people with too many numbers, it seems important to examine the actual scale of the federal government's "sequestration" that took effect March 2. Such examination might explain why some people yell about the cuts as if the sky is falling faster than Adele can sing one verse of a James Bond song
, while others seem almost blithely unconcerned about it.
In terms of overall numbers, those expressing no panic clearly have the better argument. In terms of some individual programs, the sky-is-falling crew, especially regarding national defense, can indeed make some decent points. Why? Because defense spending, unlike social spending, already was falling even before sequestration, so plenty of fat already has been shed.
We'll explain all this in a moment. First, let's emphasize one key fact: The sequester will not affect "entitlements" like Social Security and Medicare one iota. They are exempt from this process.
With that worry out of the way, let's get some perspective about how vastly overabundant federal spending is, at least by historic standards. Let's compare it with President Bill Clinton's era. There's probably not a soul on Earth who would describe Clinton as "unfeeling" about poverty, or otherwise ungenerous with public assistance. So, let's take the final full budget year overseen by Clinton, the year 2000, when Clinton enjoyed a negotiating edge over congressional Republicans because Republicans had politically overplayed impeachment.
"Non-defense discretionary spending" that year (for short, "domestic spending") was $284 billion. By 2008, the last full year before Barack Obama became president, after
a preliminary bout of "stimulus" spending pushed by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and signed by President G.W. Bush, domestic spending had risen to a whopping $494 billion. Now, for Fiscal Year 2014 (which is just six months away), the estimate even after all these "cuts" will be $550 billion.
Here's the key thing: Even after adjusting for inflation
, which makes the Clinton spending the equivalent of $380 billion in 2013 dollars, the 2014 outlays amount to a stunning 45 percent growth in domestic spending. Why, pray tell, does the federal government need to be 45 percent more generous than Mr. Feel-Your-Pain, Bill Clinton? (That's also 12 percent above the level of the 2008 Pelosi-Bush stimulus, which is another good comparison because the economy then was in doldrums similar to today's.)
On the domestic front, then, at least the first years of sequestration are not exactly a reign of austerity.
That said, it is true that the sequester's details could cause a few problems. Because the cuts go "across the board" through all accounts, it does mean that some more-important programs will get nicked just like some less-important ones. This is why these cuts are different than, for example, the cuts pushed through the Gingrich Congress of 1995-96. Then, Republicans saved $50 billion from existing spending - not from "projected increases," but in actual dollar appropriations - not by figuratively using a machete, but by using a big scalpel. The Gingrich Congress completely eliminated 300 duplicative programs, made careful cuts in hundreds of others, but increased
spending for a few important programs such as researchers at the National Institutes of Health. The sequester doesn't allow such wise discretion, and it is in that sense, not the overall spending levels, that a few needs might go less-than-fully met.
Now let's move to defense, where the situation is somewhat different. Again, let's consider 2008, the year before Barack Obama took office. Defense spending then was $686 billion. Next year, in 2014, post-sequester, estimated defense spending will be all the way down to $558 billion - an 18 percent decrease
, which is 24 percent once inflation is taken into account. Even acknowledging the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, that's such a rapid retrenchment that it will cause significant disruptions even if the cuts are made with a surgeon's care. Applied across the board, as sequestration requires, these cuts really could do damage.
To which, some will say the defense budget still remains bloated, with plenty of fat. It certainly is true that the military procurement system could be tightened up. And the long-term numbers say that if the new spending levels were done intelligently, rather than across the board, our military forces would be okay.
But a great deal of military spending involves high-tech equipment and long-term production/construction contracts. The dollars for many of these programs can't just be turned on and off like a spigot. Budgetary rules protect some accounts entirely, which means that the bulk of the cuts fall disproportionately on others, no matter how valuable a service they provide.
For those reasons, Obama and Congress surely must return to the defense budget later this year and modify the sequester, using some discretion to restore some money to important programs. To fail to do so would be a dereliction of the crucial duty to provide for the common defense.
All in all, then, sequestration is survivable domestically, especially if a few tweaks are made in future years. Militarily, though, the problems are greater, and it will take more than just tweaks to make things right.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.
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