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NOT OUT OF SERVICE: Capitol worker Jermaine Washington cleans the floor outside of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call/Newscom
NOT OUT OF SERVICE: Capitol worker Jermaine Washington cleans the floor outside of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office.

Cut and dried

Politics | The March sequester created no crisis, but may yet shape budget politics for the rest of the Obama era

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

WASHINGTON—Faced with budget cuts in 1969, the director of the National Park Service shut down the Washington Monument for two days a week. “It was unheard of,” George Hartzog said in a 2005 interview with Parks & Recreation Magazine. “Even my own staff thought I was crazy.”

The ploy worked. Public uproar over the closing led Congress to restore the funding. So many government bureaucrats copied the strategy of fighting cuts by disrupting the most popular parts of their bureaucracy that the practice became known as the Washington Monument Syndrome.

The Obama administration took the strategy to new heights in its frantic effort to halt $85 billion in automatic spending cuts called sequestration. President Obama traveled more than 5,000 miles on a campaign tour to predict gloom and doom and devastation. Cabinet secretary after Cabinet secretary doled out gruesome details of the most catastrophic scenarios, from shuttered air traffic control towers to, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “teachers now who are getting pink slips.”

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The Office of Management and Budget’s thick report on the impacted agencies included one, the National Drug Intelligence Center, that no longer exists. Even though it closed last June, it is still slated to lose $2 million to sequestration.

When the Obama administration finished weaving its lamentations of disaster to the nation, the Washington Monument was about the only thing spared. And that’s because it’s closed indefinitely due to the 2011 earthquake. Well, another item was spared: The Obama administration insisted that Obamacare would be implemented on time.

But after the mother of all Washington Monument Syndrome performances, the most frightening outcome possible for the Obama administration happened: The public did not panic and lawmakers cut spending. That bears repeating: The federal government cut spending.

Washington’s fear mongering did not generate widespread sympathy in America, from New York to New Mexico, because most workers had to cut their own budgets after the Jan. 1 expiration of the payroll tax cuts.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg brushed off the hype: “We’re going to take all the prisoners from jail and put them on the street. Spare me. I live in that world. I mean, come on, let’s get serious here.”

In Rep. Tim Huelskamp’s sprawling district of 69 counties throughout western and central Kansas, a grand total of three calls concerned about sequestration came into Huelskamp’s congressional office two days before the cut’s March 1 deadline. “I think most Americans are going to wake up and yawn,” Huelskamp said.

In Rep. Raul Labrador’s Idaho district, an educator called the congressman after listening to the White House’s warning that the state would lose 50 teachers after the sequester. According to Labrador, the educator was not fazed because he knew that the education system is operating under 2012 budget allotments. Any losses would occur in the next school year, giving officials time to plan for the cuts through attrition and budgeting.

“There is no possible way that we are going to lose any teachers right now,” Labrador said.

An official in West Virginia agreed. When pressed for specifics about his pink slip comment, Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, could only name one school district in Kanawha County, W.Va. That school system’s superintendent, Ron Duerring, soon told the media that no teachers had lost their jobs.

Across the country in New Mexico, during a telephone town hall conference call, nearly 60 percent of 7,000 participating constituents told Rep. Steve Pearce that the cuts should go through. “The idea that we can’t make cuts without hurting the nation is preposterous,” said Pearce, whose staff has counted, for instance, 123 different agencies dealing with childhood nutrition.

Facing little pressure from constituents, Republicans in Congress sat on the already locked-in spending cuts. That was a dramatic change from previous fiscal fights that featured last-minute, late-night deals that usually included kicking the can down the road. In the vote to avert the fiscal cliff, senators ushered in the New Year by voting just after 2 a.m. This time Congress adjourned hours before the sequestration deadline hit.

Then, despite Obama’s melodrama, the Dow Jones Industrial average hit a new 52-week high on March 1. It hit an all-time high on March 5.

Fiscal conservatives heralded sequestration as an encouraging victory, but it represents just a small step toward fiscal sanity.

The cuts amount to 2.4 percent of an annual federal budget that has ballooned to $3.6 trillion. The $85 billion seems even more minuscule compared to a national debt that stands at $16.61 trillion. And, in accounting magic that can only occur in Washington, the $85 billion in cuts ordered to occur before this fiscal year ends will amount to about $44 billion in real spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The remaining cuts will be spread out to future years.

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