Having given the American people a slight respite — what, about two weeks? — from contentious budget arguments, Congress is embarking upon another battle royale. A 29-person committee made up of seven representatives and 22 senators convened Wednesday to begin devising a spending plan for the current fiscal year.
If it seems as though we just went through this exercise it's because, in a way, we did. The arguments were slightly different, but just a few weeks ago, congressional members agreed upon a continuing resolution that reopened the federal government and raised the nation's debt ceiling until Jan. 15. Now, as they sit down to begin talks, one of the foremost issues will be the sequester that led to across-the-board cuts in federal programs that fall under the heading of discretionary spending.
If Congress cannot reach a budget agreement this time around, sequestration again will reduce the budget for many federal programs, which recently led The New York Times to report, "Though Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on virtually every matter of policy, they agree on one: Sequestration must end."
Which brings up a pertinent question: Why?
Created by a debt-ceiling debate that resulted in the Budget Control Act of 2011, sequestration results in automatic cuts for discretionary federal spending unless lawmakers can agree on a budget. This year, sequestration shaved $57 billion from domestic and military spending, which seems drastic until you consider that it lowered the budget from $1.043 trillion to $986 billion -- a reduction of about 5 percent. Without congressional intervention, sequestration would force a reduction of about $89 billion from the planned spending for 2014, down to $967 billion.
"We agree there are smarter ways to cut spending," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who will lead the discussions for his party. "It's not our preferred route to reducing deficits and spending, but it works."
The across-the-board cuts of the sequester have been likened to using a meat cleaver rather a scalpel to trim the fat off the budget. Yet the Democrats in Washington have had a difficult time selling the danger of such a process to the American people. President Barack Obama has spoken at times of making it a priority to restore sequester cuts; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., made a tour of the state earlier this year, stressing the damage caused by the cuts; and other lawmakers have done the same before their own constituencies.
Yet a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in September showed that the sequester had grown in popularity compared with several months prior, with 43 percent now approving of cuts. "Despite warnings from the White House and the Defense Department that the sequester would severely damage the economy and America's military, polling suggests Americans have yet to see major effects in their lives," The Post reported.
The fact is, the American people have a difficult time believing that cutting $57 billion from a trillion-dollar budget this year was actually harmful. As The New York Times recently reported, "When cuts known as sequestration hit, the Justice Department suddenly found more than half a billion dollars in unspent money from the previous year."
That kind of news leaves taxpayers incredulous when they hear predictions of dire consequences if sequester cuts go into effect again. Reducing the federal budget $89 billion compared to what it's expected to be in 2014? That sounds like a good start.