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Sequester break

Government | Slowed spending and a better economy cut the deficit, but the problem is far from solved

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

WASHINGTON—A deficit-reducing measure known as the sequester took effect March 1, and since then President Barack Obama and his liberal allies have been trying desperately to make the cuts hurt—using everything from flight delays to preschoolers. “Reports are beginning to roll in about how children will bear the brunt of congressional inaction,” complained a blogger at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal think tank. 

Yet a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted two months into the sequester found that—despite the president’s best efforts—69 percent of Americans felt no personal impact, while only 8 percent were affected a “great deal.” Furthermore, a peek at government spending numbers shows most budgets have drastically increased since Obama took office in 2009.

The preschool program Head Start is a good example: The program received $6.9 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2008, and the 2013 continuing resolution (Congress hasn’t passed a real budget in four years) allocated more than $8 billion—a 16 percent nominal increase.

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That constitutes a raise, says Jeff Bergner, adjunct professor at Christopher Newport University: “Nobody in America says, ‘Well, dear, I got a $2,000 pay increase, but I’m depressed because it’s really a 5 percent cut compared to what I should have got.’ Only in Washington do people talk like that.”

Government programs grew roughly 35 percent on average from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2013, which is why the Obama administration has found it difficult to convince Americans that a 2.4 percent cut is draconian. Bergner said the sequester meant legitimate reductions for the Department of Defense, but most social programs experienced no worse than a spending freeze as budgets held closer to FY 2012 levels.

Head Start experienced an approximate freeze, but it still had enough money in the bank to spend over $750,000 on a three-day Washington, D.C., conference for 2,800 Head Start leaders in early May—including hotel reservations at $224 a night.

Maybe a conference was what the failing program needed: Last year a Department of Health and Human Services study found no difference between third-graders who had enrolled in Head Start and those who had not. “Head Start is a classic example of intentions mattering more than results,” said David Muhlhausen, a Heritage Foundation research fellow who studied the program.

Bergner told me every time Obama refuses to cut from Obamacare, education, and green energy, “It’s like a roadmap for where we’re wasting money.” Energy spending has skyrocketed under Obama: In the first six weeks of 2013 alone, the departments of Energy and Treasury doled out $1.2 billion in cash payments for hundreds of energy projects around the country.

The Congressional Budget Office projects the 2013 budget deficit will drop to $642 billion—half of what it was four years ago—due to the sequester and a recovering economy.

The long-term outlook, however, still isn’t good: Declining interest rates helped net interest payments on the debt hold steady around $250 billion during the last five years, but the Office of Management and Budget estimates net interest payments will more than double in the next four years as interest rates rise. Net interest is expected to more than triple to $850 billion annually in 10 years, adding hundreds of billions to yearly deficits.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle say they oppose across-the-board reductions in favor of targeted cuts. But every program has political advocates, so Bergner argues that across-the-board cuts are the only real means of cutting anything: “It’s never going to be popular, but I think it’s a reasonably fair way to proceed.”

If lawmakers can’t agree to cut a program proven not to work—like Head Start—he may be right.

What sequester?

Federal spending has grown about 35 percent since Obama took office

Energy

2008: $0.6 billon

2013: $13 billon

Increase: 2066%

Agriculture

2008: $18 billon

2013: $25 billon

Increase: 39%

Science, Space, and Technology

2008: $26 billon

2013: $31 billon

Increase: 19%

International Affairs

2008: $28 billon

2013: $59 billon

Increase: 111%

Justice

2008: $48 billon

2013: $62 billon

Increase: 29%

Transportation

2008: $77 billon

2013: $114 billon

Increase: 48%

Veterans

2008: $84 billon

2013: $140 billon

Increase: 67%

Health

2008: $280 billon

2013: $385 billon

Increase: 38%

Defense

2008: $616 billon

2013: $701 billon

Increase: 14%

Source: Mercatus Center, George Mason University, using nominal dollars as provided by the Office of Management and Budget.

J.C. Derrick
J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a reporter in WORLD's Washington Bureau. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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