The 56 Percent

David M. Abshire (Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1983-1987) and Christopher O. Howard

Cross-posted from Ambassador Abshire and Mr. Howard’s February 27, 2013 op-ed in the Latin American Herald Tribune.


Fifty-six percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of our country’s political system according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month. And that’s before the next tranche of government dysfunction kicks in on Friday: the so-called sequester.

What will the sequester actually mean? In general terms, it means that tens of billions of dollars won’t be spent in the second half of Fiscal Year 2013. To many Americans, that sounds like a good idea. After all, the federal government already spends about $1 trillion a year that it doesn’t have. At least, goes the thinking, this would be a start on cutting back that deficit.

The problem is – well, one problem is – that choosing not to spend money now does not necessarily save money overall. Any homeowner who has struggled with a leaky roof knows that. Not all the sequester money is slated to fix roofs, or other metaphorical equivalents, but some of it is. Which brings us to a bigger problem: the sequester is indiscriminate, cutting spending across the board with no consideration of merit, need, or impact.

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper limits of government, how different programs should be funded, and how much spending and taxation are appropriate, but the sequester doesn’t address any of this. It cuts everything, good and bad. Like any crash diet, the sequester will cut at least as much muscle as fat. It isn’t even an example of poor governance so much as a complete abdication of the responsibility of governing. There are no worlds in which it makes sense to cripple good programs while letting wasteful ones survive.

As with every manufactured government crisis, the process of sequestration itself is very costly. Planning takes time and resources. Furloughs mean things happen more slowly and less efficiently. And the toll won’t be limited to government employees. The sequester will hit virtually every supplier, manufacturer, or contractor who makes pieces or parts for the military or provides other services to government. It will also impact their employees, who will lose their jobs if their employers go out of business. Within weeks, it will impact every small business in the country that depends on the custom of those folks – restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters, gas stations, everything.

Funding for education will be cut – during the school year. In the midst of a national debate about how much more we should be doing to secure our borders, we will do less. Medical and scientific research will be cut, in some cases ending projects before they have been completed, meaning the entire effort and expenditure will have been wasted. Even our shamefully underfunded national parks – where natural treasures are too often served by crumbling infrastructure – will see 10 percent cuts. On the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Union victory, education programs will be cut by 20 percent at Gettysburg. Perhaps that’s just as well, since even school kids could figure out that Little Round Top would not have held with 20 percent fewer defenders.

To be fair, the uniformed military is exempt from the sequester, but the Defense Department is not. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has often spoken of the need to cut defense spending, but to do so strategically. The sequester is the opposite of strategic. Training will be reduced, maintenance will be deferred, and support programs will be cut. Our national security will be harmed. And again, it’s not clear that a single penny will actually be saved. For example, the Navy has delayed the refueling of the USS Abraham Lincoln for months. Refueling a nuclear aircraft carrier takes years to complete and is scheduled more than a decade in advance, so this delay will mean subsequent delays for other carriers as they run out of fuel. In other words, to “save” some money now, we will have carrier strike groups – defense assets worth more than $50 billion each – basically standing in line at the gas station for years to come.

Napoleon famously said that in war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one. The same is true in life. The measurable, “physical” cost of the sequester may end up being relatively slight. Perhaps by some accounting there will even be a net financial savings or economic gain. But the human cost has already been tremendous. Well over one million people are worried about having their pay cut by as much as 20 percent. Hundreds of thousands more are legitimately concerned about losing their job. Anyone who has ever worried about losing their job or being able to pay their bills knows the toll it can take on morale. In this case, much of that toll will be borne by intelligence professionals, logistics experts, design engineers, and other critical defense employees in whose hands lie the lives of our soldiers. Many of them will lose houses or have to curtail their education, not because they have been irresponsible, but because their government has been.

One of the best things about writing this series has been the interaction we’ve had with CSPC’s Presidential Fellows. One Stanford scholar recently suggested that we are expecting Members of Congress to work against their own electoral interests. He may be right. We are expecting them to govern. To do the job they sought and the job they swore to do in their oath of office. There are people of goodwill in both Houses of Congress and both political parties who are struggling valiantly to do just this. They are working to lead the country. But they are hamstrung by “hardheads” enthrall to the narrow constituencies of political extremists who dominate the primary process in both parties, and who believe fealty to simplistic nostrums is more important than effective governance. As former Senator Alan Simpson recently said, “These guys…aren’t interested in winning. They’re interested in making the other side lose – in fact, rubbing the other side’s nose in it.” That’s not the behavior of leaders, but of schoolyard bullies. And it’s why a majority of Americans think our system of government no longer works.

Polls also show that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t fully understand what the sequester is and what it will mean. Only in Washington does “sequester” have anything to do with government spending. Most Americans associate it with juries, often sequestered for deliberation. Similarly, though the Roman Catholic Church does not use the term, the College of Cardinals will be sequestered for the coming Papal Conclave. Perhaps what this country needs is a sequester that all Americans can understand, a sequestration of Congress in the U.S. Capitol until they fix the mess they should never have created in the first place.