Sequester Standoff

March 1, 2013     
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The United States is the most technologically sophisticated society on the globe. The United States is also rapidly becoming a “third world” country. Our infrastructure is crumbling. For public transportation, basic infrastructure is often non-existent, even in major cities. Our schools are under-performing on most measures, our teachers are poorly trained, and local educational resources are getting cut to the bare bones. Most startling, American politicians have become so polarized that they seem more intent on waging jihad rather than making necessary deals with their congressional adversaries.

Washington is currently dominated by tribes, not enlightened representatives, that rule by tabu. You cannot even acknowledge that some new taxes are appropriate, if you are a Republican. You must not agree that entitlement spending requires some limits, if you are a Democrat. This is not governance. It is guerilla warfare.

The effect is what has just begun on March 1: sequestration. Since Congress could not agree on a mix of new taxes and new entitlement cuts, the United States will begin to implement across-the-board spending cuts divided evenly between domestic and military appropriations. The cuts will total $984 billion, and they are immediate.

This is a textbook example of how NOT to govern. The members of Congress are not talking across parties. They are not working hard for a deal to manage this new economic environment. They are sitting back, pretending the cuts are not as damaging as they are, and encouraging everyone to get on with their lives - to “go shopping,” as a previous president put it.

The general political nonchalance about the sequester stands in start contrast to the communities with large numbers of military support personnel who will face deep pay cuts, as well as students and small businesses who will not get promised loans. The sequester hurts most in bringing all government work to a standstill. Under sequester, you cannot hire new people, you cannot invest in valuable new programs, and you cannot think ahead. The U.S. government has placed its advanced society into a bickering and backward headlock.

What should we expect? A few more weeks of public apathy toward the sequester, followed by a quick increase in public outrage when the sequester cuts start to hurt badly.

What should we do? That is a very hard question to answer. Our elected leaders cower before their most extreme supporters, and they discredit all routes to necessary compromise. They repeatedly show poor judgment.

The sequester standoff will only end when citizens demand not just a deal, but a renewed commitment to bipartisan efforts at budgeting. Citizens must make it clear to members of Congress that present behavior is unacceptable. Voters must withhold their votes from the many destructive personalities at the Capitol.

I dream today of a sequester-inspired movement of politically engaged young people. New leaders less entrapped in the inherited commitments of established politicians can act in more cooperative ways. A sequester-inspired movement will not necessarily create street barricades. Instead, I envision a new movement following our standoff as the public searches for the very dynamism it presently lacks. It is time to say “enough” (!) to elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and make bipartisan fiscal cooperation a new organizing principle for our fragmented and antagonistic political system.

Policy is about personnel. We need better personnel in government. The frustration of the sequester should motivate all of us to force a change in the federal government’s mode of operation. To govern is to work with others, friends and enemies. To be a good citizen is to demand much more courage and foresight than we are getting from the people elected to serve our needs. The standoff of the sequester shows it is time for all Americans to stand up and demand more.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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