It’s time for official Washington to admit that the sequester is the best thing that’s happened for taxpayers since the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in the mid-1980s. Domestic discretionary spending is being reduced and will continue to be cut as long as Congress sticks to the sequester limits.
Despite initial complaints, fears and demagoguery about the supposed devastating effects of the sequester and its rigid requirement of across-the-board cuts, it seems that every day there are reports of agencies “finding” money for various purposes.
Before March 1, when the sequester took effect, agencies unanimously claimed that massive employee furloughs would adversely affect the ability of the government to administer vital programs. The furloughs were trumpeted by opponents of the sequester as a major reason to break the spending caps. But as The Washington Post reported on Aug. 13, “most major agencies have reduced, or eliminated altogether, original furlough projections.” Agencies “relied on ‘internal reviews’ of their financial conditions, during which they discovered cost-cutting measures had made their situations less dire than originally anticipated.” In other words, exigency created efficiency.
Agencies are also saving billions of dollars by using more video conferencing and spending less money on travel. While the impetus behind this effort stemmed from scandalous revelations of excessive conference spending in 2010 and 2011, the savings have been accelerated because of the sequester.
Despite the world not coming to an end and the easy availability of significantly more savings to meet the caps, President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats have already had enough of the sequester. The Senate budget resolution for fiscal 2014, which was adopted with only Democratic support, allows more than $90 billion in appropriations above the sequester limits. The House budget resolution sticks to the caps. The president, who doth protest too much about the sequester since it was originally his idea, has threatened to veto appropriations bills that fail to comply with the Senate spending limits.
In stark contrast to this partisan bickering, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was passed by a Republican Senate and Democratic House and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. One year later, a revised version of the law was passed by a then-Democratic Congress and signed into law by a Republican White House.
As former Sen. Phil Gramm noted earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal, the first sequester in 1986 “cut nondefense spending by 4.3% and defense spending by 4.9%,” figures that exceed the effect of the sequester on fiscal 2013 spending.
The second round of Gramm-Rudman spending cuts would have been 8.5 percent for nondefense spending and 10.5 percent for defense, but a Democratic House and Senate agreed with a Republican White House to replace those across-the-board cuts with greater savings in fiscal 1988 and 1989 by targeting specific agencies and programs rather than everything equally. In other words, Congress and the president did something that is unimaginable today.
The sequester is certainly not a panacea for profligacy in Washington; there are far better ways to save money. The most reasonable place to start is by eliminating the duplication and overlap in federal programs that have been identified by the Government Accountability Office in its annual reports from 2011 to 2013. According to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the annual cost of those programs is $395 billion.
In other words, the first question that should be asked of Obama and members of Congress who want to gut the sequester is why they aren’t instead proposing to consolidate or eliminate the 94 federal initiatives across 11 agencies that encourage “green building” in the private sector, the more than 50 federal programs across 20 agencies that promote financial literacy or the 47 job training programs that cost more than $18 billion annually?
The same question should be asked about every other duplicative or wasteful program identified by the GAO, the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and Budget and non-governmental sources such as our organization’s Prime Cuts.
Offers of a “grand bargain” to replace the sequester should be rejected. Past agreements have been a bad deal for taxpayers, leading to higher taxes and spending. Only the sequester, starting with Gramm-Rudman, has resulted in real spending cuts.
Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.