Tag Archives: U.S. House

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot: Breaking Down The Sequester

Barring a last-minute deal between President Barack Obama and Republican Congressional leaders, it appears that the sequester — $85.3 billion in spending cuts for this fiscal year (and a total of $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade) — will be implemented beginning March 1.

What will the sequester mean?  Let’s take a look.

Details of the cuts

$85.3 billion represents about 2.4% of total government spending.  But the impacts of the sequester will be far more impactful than that, because of the programs that are exempted from the spending cuts.  Additionally, five months of the federal fiscal year has already passed, meaning that the full year value of the cuts have to be taken in a seven-month timeframe.

Half of the spending cuts will come out defense.  $42.7 billion represents 7.8 percent of the defense budget on an annual basis, but compressing those cuts into seven months will result in a 13% cut in defense spending the rest of the year.  There are no significant exceptions to the defense spending cuts, meaning that essentially all items in the defense budget will get an across-the-board cut.  This includes operations in Afghanistan and military aid for Hurricane Sandy relief.  Additionally, President Obama has indicated he will protect soldiers from receiving pay cuts, which means all other programs will see yet larger cuts to make up the difference.  Finally, restrictions in the sequester language mean that the Administration is prohibited from cutting the pay of civilian defense employees and must instead reduce headcount.

The other half of the spending comes out of three categories:  domestic discretionary spending, domestic mandatory spending, and Medicare.  Together, these categories make up the remaining $42.7 billion.  Let’s talk about what is excluded from these three categories first — the list is long and includes Social Security, non-administrative expenses in the Veterans Administration, refundable tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit), Children’s Health Insurance Program, standard unemployment benefits, Medicaid, and most other programs supporting low-income families.  These programs represent over $2 trillion in annual government spending, meaning that all of the cuts are being taken against spending that represents about 40% of the federal budget.

Domestic discretionary spending cuts will total $26.4 billion, representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will hit areas of the budget including education funding for programs like Head Start, will require closing the air traffic control towers at several state airports, federal funding for “Meals on Wheels” programs, and grants for environmental projects.

Domestic mandatory spending will be cut by $5.1 billion, also representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will impact farm subsidies, extended unemployment benefits, and some federal health care programs, such as the Indian Health Care program.

Finally, Medicare will see $11.2 billion in cuts, representing a 2% cut.  Medicare cuts will not impact beneficiaries of the program, but rather reflect a cut in provider and Medicare Advantage reimbursement rates.

What Will Happen?

The budget cuts in the sequester are really just about the worst kind of cuts that could be made.  First off, they are arbitrary and across-the-board.  The President has no discretion on how to distribute the cuts, meaning that effective programs are cut at the same rates as programs that have less impact.  Second, there are too many exceptions.  The cuts, as noted above, represent a small portion of the total budget, but since a majority of the budget is excluded from the cuts, the programs that are hit are hit hard.

These cuts are also going to have major negative impacts on employment and economic growth.  The Bipartisan Policy Center projects a loss of 1 million jobs and 0.5% of gross domestic product.  Other estimates claim job losses in excess of 700,000.  Implementing the sequester is going to seriously damage a still fragile recovery and sluggish labor markets.

Worst of all, the combined effect of all of these impacts mean that we are unlikely to get any meaningful deficit reduction as a result of the sequester.  Slower economic growth means that the economy will produce less tax revenue, making the deficit situation worse than before.  As evidence of how this is possible, one need only look at what is occurring in Europe.  Following rounds of budget cuts, the United Kingdom (which is on the verge of a triple-dip recession), France, and Spain have all missed their deficit reduction targets.  Fed chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the same possibility before the House Financial Services Committee today.

Additionally, the fact that health care and entitlement programs are essentially left off the chopping block means that these cuts do practically nothing to change the long-term debt picture, because that is where the majority of spending (and spending growth) will happen over the coming decades.

The upshot here is that the failure of our political system to take the right path regarding our financial future has us on the verge of a serious self-inflicted blow to our economy.  One might think that the risks here would be enough to get folks looking beyond their own narrow political interest.  But apparently not.  There’s a reasoned approach to be had here, maintaining levels of spending today to preserve the economic recovery while instituting reforms in the medium- to long-term in order to bring debt levels down to a sustainable level.  Who’s going to set aside their party’s political interests to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Americans?

General Sources:

Bipartisan Policy Center (explainer)

Washington Post (state-by-state impacts)

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Republicans driving the car over a cliff

When he was White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel famously said “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”  Republicans in Washington D.C. have certainly learned that rule, and learned it well.  So much so that they are in the process of manufacturing a crisis in order to create the opportunity to get reforms they feel are necessary.

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this post the sheer absurdity of the notion that after having passed a budget that increases the amount of the national debt over the debt ceiling that Congress then has to re-approve spending to that level.  What Congressional Republicans are doing right now is even more reckless than how Minnesota Republicans handled budget negotiations over the last few months.

President Obama has offered significant spending cuts and pared back his tax increases to the bare minimum.  In fact, what President Obama has offered as part of these negotiations is well to the right of Alan Simpson-Erskine Bowles Bipartisan Deficit Commission, the Senate  “Gang of Six”,  and the Alice Rivlin-Pete Domenici Deficit Commission.

President Obama has offered a plan that is almost 4:1 spending cuts to revenue increases.  The revenue increases consist of eliminating loopholes, subsidies, and deductions — many of which Republicans have supported in the past.  The tax code should not be used to pick winners and losers, but rather to ensure a level playing field and to provide the necessary resources for government to perform its functions.  They would be accompanied by a lowering of rates overall to make the changes generate far less revenue than they otherwise would.  This used to be a core Republican value.

Normal people would jump at such a deal — a chance for real entitlement reform ($650 billion in savings over the next 10 years), real cuts in discretionary spending ($1 trillion over the next 10 years, taking such spending back to pre-WWII levels), and rational tax reform that generates about 20% of the overall solution.

But today’s Republicans aren’t normal.  They are devoted to “no new tax” ideology at any cost.  They are willing to drive the car off the cliff as opposed to forcing their wealthy and corporate patrons — who have benefitted the most over the past decade while the labor market and median incomes for the rest of us have stagnated — to chip in just a little bit more.

If Congressional Republicans can’t come to an agreement on the debt ceiling and the country goes into default, they will effectively raise the taxes of every American through increased interest rates.  Our stock market will feel the impact of lost confidence of investors.  There could even be a run on the banks.  This is not a risk we should even be considering, but Republicans are still — even at this late date — still holding out for complete capitulation from the President.

We shouldn’t also fail to point the rank hypocrisy of many of the Congressional Republicans at the heart of this crisis today.  During the Bush Administration, these same leaders voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling — from $5.95 trillion to $11.315 trillion.  They also voted for policies that destroyed our financial future.  As the New York Times pointed out over the weekend, if you take out the impacts of the recession and only look at policy changes, what happened in the Bush Administration caused far more damage than anything that has happened under President Obama (even extending out the impacts of the Obama policy changes to 2017).  Note that the cost of the Bush tax cuts alone is more than all of the policy changes under President Obama combined.

It’s time to stop the false equivalency.  There is a very real difference between Democrats and Republicans — both in Washington D.C. and in St. Paul.  Democrats aren’t willing to put their partisan goals ahead of the well-being of the American people.  Republicans are seemingly content to “take hostages” — including the American economy — to fulfill their ideological goals.

Compromise isn’t a dirty word.  Compromise isn’t weakness.  Compromise is necessary in a divided government, and it’s time Republicans started getting back to doing the serious work of the people instead of being led around by their special interest groups.

Across the Great Abide

On Saturday, April 10, Dan Powers won the endorsement of the DFL Party to challenge Rep. John Kline in the Second Congressional District.  Powers’s opponent for the nomination, former State Rep. Shelly Madore, had agreed to abide by the endorsement process and conceded the race at the CD 2 Convention.

Last Friday, however, things changed.  Madore jumped back into the race, announcing her intention to run against Powers in the primary.

In her announcement, Madore cited Powers’ low fundraising totals as a key consideration for getting back into the race, as well as the urging of a number of unnamed supporters.

In response, the video of Madore’s pledge to abide has been circulated, and numerous e-mails have circled the respective DFL mailing lists in recent days, prompting an outpouring of support for Powers’s campaign.

If you’re going to run for office, choosing to bypass the endorsement process and run in the primary is a perfectly legitimate approach to take.  Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, and Susan Gaertner have all gone for this approach in the governor’s race this cycle.  Does it make the route to the nomination harder?  Definitely, but it’s hardly novel or unusual.  

This probably would have been the best approach for Madore to take in this race.  Frankly, she was late to the race, entering 10 weeks before the CD 2 convention.  Powers’ campaign had been up and running for several months, and he had been doing the hard, hard work of reaching out to delegates across the district for all of that time.  Say what you will about Powers as a candidate, no one has ever knocked him for not working hard.  Earning the endorsement was always going to be an uphill battle for Madore based on that perspective.   Delegates respect the folks who are willing to do the work.  Dan Powers earned that respect, and those votes.

And while Madore makes some valid critiques of Powers’ campaign (although Madore’s own fundraising is hardly awe-inspiring, either), she alone bears the responsibility for making the decision to say she would abide by the nomination. 

If you say you’re going to abide, then you’ve got to abide.  Nothing fundamentally changed from the time she conceded on April 10 to when she got back into the race six days later.  Madore has a compelling personal story, and she has a record of electoral success that Powers doesn’t have.  She could have been far better positioned to make that case in a primary than she is today.  Today, she finds herself having lost much of the base she did have with the party activists and weakened in her ability to make a compelling case against Powers through what will look like “politics as usual” to many voters.


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