We’ve been sequestered. In the summer of 2011, the U.S. government was on the verge of defaulting on its debt for the first time in its history — an occurrence that would have been catastrophic for the economy. Yet, President Obama and congressional Republicans were in a stalemate. On one side, Republican leaders were insisting that any deal to raise the debt limit must be accompanied by significant government spending cuts. On the other side, President Obama wanted to avoid deep cuts to key government programs.
While the brinksmanship between the two sides led to a first-ever downgrade of the U.S. debt, a deal was reached — the debt ceiling would be raised (thus averting a default), but both sides would commit to significant deficit reduction during the next 18 months. To maintain the pressure on both sides to continue negotiating, a slate of $1.2 trillion spending cuts over the next 10 years would automatically go into place if a new deficit reduction deal was not reached. Technically, the U.S. Treasury would hold back, or sequester the funds, from government agencies. These cuts were slated to go into effect on Jan. 1. However, as a part of the fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of the year (if you think that there have been too many manufactured fiscal crises then you are not alone), these automatic cuts were postponed until March 1 — this last Friday.
The sequester is now here.
On Friday, President Obama signed an order informing all agencies that during the next seven months the U.S. Treasury will reduce federal discretionary spending by $85 billion for the remainder of this fiscal year (the cuts rise to $109 billion per year starting in October). Since the sequester language specified that all discretionary programs would be cut across-the-board, one-half of the spending cuts will be absorbed by the military — $43 billion this year and $55 billion each year for the next decade.
In the end, it is clear that the president miscalculated. He must have assumed that congressional Republicans would be willing to work with him to avoid deep cuts to military spending. But as the months wore on, it became increasingly clear that congressional Republicans were no longer willing to make any more deals with the president.
The impact of the spending cuts won’t be felt by everyone immediately, but some will soon notice significant pain. For example, Oklahoma’s civilian federal employees — including those working at our military bases supporting our armed forces — face eventual furloughs over the next few months. Unfortunately, those workers who live day-to-day, week-to-week and paycheck-to-paycheck, a cut in pay could mean losing their home, visiting the doctor less often and even bankruptcy. For others, it certainly means they will spend less.
If one examines the impact on the families of our nation’s federal employees, the sequester cuts will cause significant pain, hardship and angst. If one examines the impact on the nation’s economy, the sequester will further slow the rate of job creation and economic growth. Consequently, with every economic report we receive now we will know that it would have been stronger had Congress been willing to act.
In short, this isn’t just a theoretical game, this has real impact. This isn’t just a political game, this is hurting real families. And it wouldn’t be happening if Republicans in Congress had been willing to work with the president.
There was a time when we expected our leaders to lead, and not just give up. There was a time when we expected our leaders to solve problems, not cause them. There was a time when we expected our leaders to fight for our families, and not just turn their backs on them.
Apparently, those days are gone.
MICKEY HEPNER is the dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.