WASHINGTON -- The White House is still trying to stir up a climate of fear over the looming budget sequester that is not supported by the size of its puny spending cuts.
This irresponsible political strategy is being driven by President Obama in an attempt to convince enough of us that the sequester will shut down critical sectors of the government, endanger our country and possibly plunge the economy into another crisis.
A lot of this hysteria, too, comes from his pals in the nightly network news who have failed to put this fiscal battle and its complexities into proper perspective.
So let's take a deep breath and look at the math behind the sequester, which shows just how exaggerated these cuts may prove to be in the end.
We keep seeing warnings flashed on our TV screens in bold numerals that the sequester will whack $1.1 trillion out of a federal budget that spends between $3.5 trillion and $4 trillion a year. Is this true?
In fact, it is $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years, which means, first, we are talking about a much smaller sum of money this year.
And, second, no one suggests that the stalemate over the sequester is going to last an entire decade. For more than two centuries, we have financed our government by enacting annual budgets, though that process has been stopped cold in recent years because the Democratic-run Senate refuses to pass a budget.
That's something you hear very little about on the nightly news, where the blame tends to be placed on the Republican-controlled House, even though it has sent three budgets to the Senate over the last three years -- only to have them be declared "dead on arrival." According to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, "We don't need a budget."
So how much are we really talking about in terms of the across-the-board spending cuts that could take place this year after the March 1 sequester deadline?
Just $85 billion out of a budget that's fast approaching $4 trillion a year. In fact, the real number would likely be less than that when measured in terms of outlays -- not in authorizations for future spending.
Be that as it may, if members of Congress cannot cut a mere $85 billion from a monster budget of this size -- swollen by $1 trillion a year in borrowed money -- they're not trying.
The government loses a great deal more than that each year through fraud, thievery, waste, abuse, duplication and sheer incompetence.
But the rules governing the pending sequester require that the spending cuts must fall across the board, with half coming from domestic federal spending and half from the Department of Defense.
Moreover, it must be carved out of a narrow slice of the budget called operating accounts, much of which goes into payrolls and contracts. (Most of all entitlement spending, including Social Security and Medicare, is exempt.)
"There is nothing wrong with cutting spending that much -- we should be cutting even more -- but the sequester is an ugly and dangerous way to do it," House Speaker John Boehner wrote this week in an op-ed column for The Wall Street Journal.
There are plenty of places to cut a defense budget that is approaching $700 billion, fattened by congressionally designated pork obtained by highly paid lobbyists. Still, indiscriminate, meat-ax cuts in our military forces are not the way to do it.
True, the department would have some "wiggle room" to soften the blow, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. But that would take Congress's approval to allow the DOD to shift funds from one account to another, a jealously guarded management tool that lawmakers refuse to yield to the executive branch.
How did we get into this mess? Obama, with help from his friends in the news media, is blaming the Republicans, but Speaker Boehner tells us a much different story about how the government ended up in this sequester box.
When negotiations over the debt limit reached a bottleneck in 2011, Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell worked out a bipartisan plan to cap discretionary spending and create a special House-Senate "super-committee" to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts. If they didn't, the debt limit would not be raised, presumably forcing a compromise.
But Obama "was determined not to face another debt-limit increase before his re-election campaign," Boehner explained in his op-ed column. "Having just blown up one deal, the president scuttled this bipartisan, bicameral agreement. His solution? A sequester."
With yet another debt-limit crisis breathing down their necks, both parties "reluctantly accepted the president's demand for the sequester," and the deal was approved with bipartisan support.
In the end, the super-committee failed to agree to any budget plan, even though Republicans proposed a mix of spending cuts and additional revenue through tax reforms. "As a result, the president's sequester is now imminent," Boehner said.
House Republicans have passed two budget-cutting plans to replace the sequester. They gave Obama a vote on higher taxes on people earning more than $400,000 a year, giving him $600 billion in new revenue.
But what has Obama come up with in return? Photo-op, blame-pointing, fear-mongering news conferences, but no budget-cutting plan to prevent the sequester from taking place.
He continues to insist that any deal must include higher taxes or else he seems ready to let the sequester do its work. For four straight years he has been calling for higher tax rates, something he couldn't get when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
But as Boehner correctly says, "the tax debate is closed."
With the economy slowing to a crawl, new housing starts declining and unemployment claims on the rise again, this is no time to be increasing taxes on anyone.
The ball is now in Obama's court, and as a result of his tax-driven, politically motivated intransigence, he will be held responsible for any economic crisis that follows.
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