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Jane Ahlin, Published May 04 2013

Ahlin: Congressional action exposes phony nature of sequester

Wow. For one brief moment, Congress acted decisively.

And what was the impetus for this incredible emergency action? Had food-borne illnesses sent thousands to the hospital? Had the elderly descended on Washington brandishing canes and walkers to protest the loss of Meals on Wheels? Had the U.S. Geological Survey told President Barack Obama to start building an ark? No, no, and no. The frenetic lawmaking was in direct response to something personally threatening to politicians, a phenomenon they understand and commiserate with – one, frankly, that makes their blood run cold.

Put another way, the automatic furloughs for air traffic controllers as a result of sequestration caused problems that flying first class could not cure. (Shudder! Congressional delegates might as well be back in steerage where there’s no leg room and the poor suckers have to pay for their own drinks.) Yes, indeed, across-the-board cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration demanded by sequestration wreaked havoc with their way of life. In fact, up and down the East Coast, frequent flyers were apoplectic over the artificial crisis, which made our national politicians – who appeared to have forgotten they caused it – mad as hell and they weren’t going to take this anymore. In the rush to get the airplanes back on schedule, partisan politics were set aside. All for one and one for all. Nip the problem in the bud.

Voila! Congressional action.

Sigh.

Lo, those many months ago when we Americans wanted to believe members of the U.S. Congress would not allow sequestration to happen, negative associations – terms, such as “unthinking” and “unthinkable” – abounded.

From the beginning, sequestration was the worst of bad ideas. Back then, when politicians and pundits held forth about sequestration being too offensive for Congress to stomach, we accepted their words as truth. After all, slashing all government expenditures a flat percentage – automatic and across the board – didn’t require balancing facts and figures with principles and practicalities. Certainly, it didn’t require skills of good old congressional horse-trading. A simple calculator would do. Congress might as well take the session off.

Conventional wisdom decreed, although the end result might not be pretty, Congress would not resort to sequestration. Republicans couldn’t abide indiscriminate cuts to the military nor Democrats to programs for the needy. And none of them would want their will replaced by a formula. (So demeaning. The voting public might decide Congress is unnecessary.) In short, the dread of sequestration would end up being the mother of all compromises.

Sorry to say, but in retrospect that’s what’s called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

The truth is, Congress doesn’t appear the least bit upset about automatic sequestration cuts that don’t affect them directly. The speed with which they granted dispensation to the FAA to move funds around was head-spinning (the vote in the House was 361 to 41) and pointed up their phoniness in allowing the rest of sequestration to continue. Nor do they have any shame about it. Shouldn’t they be a wee bit embarrassed that they let stand sequestration that removes a million kids from Head Start and virtually shuts down Meals on Wheels programs that so many elderly Americans depend upon? Shouldn’t they be chagrined hearing about the recent problems of E. coli in ground turkey when they know that sequestration cuts the number of food inspectors, putting the American food supply more at risk?

Yes, everybody hates long lines at airports or missing connections because of late flights. But those are inconveniences, not life-altering problems other parts of sequestration cause.

On March 1, when sequestration began, there was jockeying between parties, each trying to paint the other as the political party Americans should hold in contempt. Such a fool’s errand. What sequestration clearly reveals is their contempt for us.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.