Editor’s note: A version of this piece first appeared in the Washington Times.
Against all odds, part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) forced the federal government to enact $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over nine fiscal years. Despite the heated rhetoric emerging from Washington at the time, the initial cuts from sequestration proved to be modest. At most, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the sequester reduced spending by a mere $44 billion in the current fiscal year out of the $3.5 trillion in total government outlays. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the dire predictions made at the time have since been proven wrong. The federal government should not squander the modest gains in our fiscal situation that these modest spending cuts produced. Reversing sequestration would, in the words of the CBO director Douglas Elmendorf, “lead to greater federal debt … reduce the nation’s income … and increase the risk of a fiscal crisis” in the future.
Sequestration was a blunt instrument requiring cuts across all discretionary spending programs. This alleged “meat cleaver” approach was inevitable precisely because it was a last resort. Facing the need to rein in a deficit of more than $1 trillion, lawmakers still failed to reach an agreement on spending cuts to replace the sequester. A broad-based spending cut solution was the one that special interests were least likely to derail. The BCA, which gave us the sequester, did exactly that.
It comes as no surprise that agencies were generally able to accommodate the modest cuts implemented this fiscal year with minor reductions in services and short furloughs. Many federal agencies did not even need to furlough employees, and the hardest hit, like the Department of Defense, furloughed far fewer employees than originally estimated for only six days, down from the early warning of 22 days. The next stage will be harder, but the importance of retaining these gains in fiscal responsibility is correspondingly greater. The newest figures from the Office of Budget and Management show even higher projected spending over the next decade—up $154 billion even from April’s estimates—after a slight improvement in the fiscal outlook for this year.