Unless an uncharacteristic outbreak of common sense quickly grips Washington, an array of harsh, automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending will take effect on Friday. President Obama and members of Congress — especially his Republican antagonists — need to stop playing chicken with Americans’ lives and prevent the so-called sequester from returning the nation to recession.
The sequester would reduce spending by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. In its first phase this week, it will begin to cut $85 billion in discretionary spending — that is, almost everything except entitlement programs such as Social Security and interest on the national debt. Defense officials warn that the sequester’s indiscriminate cuts to Pentagon programs will harm military readiness.
Economists say the sequester will stall the country’s still-shaky recovery and cut projected economic growth in half this year. It will immediately cost tens of thousands of Americans their jobs; over the next two years, that figure would rise to more than a million — 40,000 in Ohio.
It will impair essential federal investment in such things as education, medical research, and infrastructure repair. At a time when GOP lawmakers won’t let go of the Benghazi tragedy, the sequester will reduce security at U.S. embassies.
A report by Democratic lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee spells out some of the implications of the sequester for Ohio and Michigan:
●Public schools in Ohio would lose $26.6 million in federal Title I grants, which pay for teachers, tutors, and after-school programs for disadvantaged students. Schools would lose another $23.3 million in grants to educate children with disabilities. The cuts would occur even though Washington requires schools to provide these services.
Toledo Public Schools officials estimate the district would lose $1.9 million in the next fiscal year under the sequester. That could force TPS to increase class sizes and lay off teachers, officials warn.
In Michigan, schools would lose $23.4 million in Title I grants and $21.5 million in special-education aid.
●Head Start preschool programs in Ohio would lose $15 million; in Michigan, the loss would be $14 million — a 5.3 percent cut in federal funding. The effects: Some children would lose access to Head Start classes, and some employees of the programs would lose their jobs.
●A similar cut would reduce federal aid to working-poor families for good-quality child care. Ohio would lose $4.3 million, and Michigan $3.7 million, in such aid. That reduction could impair the development of thousands of vulnerable children in the two states.
●The U.S. Air Force would furlough 14,278 civilian employees in Ohio — many of them veterans — for 22 work days, mostly at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. These workers would lose $111.1 million in wages, in addition to the indirect but substantial economic effects the furloughs would have on their communities. In Michigan, 809 employees face furloughs; they stand to lose $6.3 million in wages.
These items only begin to describe the damage the sequester would do. It also would afflict nuclear safety, air traffic control and airport security, law enforcement, public health, environmental protection, food safety inspections, national parks — essentially, everything the government does.
Mr. Obama proposed the sequester in 2011 in response to Republican extortion over raising the federal debt ceiling. He sought to use the threat of the budget meat ax as a way to goad Congress into developing a better, bipartisan approach to setting spending and tax priorities and shrinking the national debt.
But the President clearly underestimated lawmakers’ penchant for doing nothing in a crisis, even a self-imposed one. It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, be this way.
GOP congressional leaders, especially House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, can reject the anarchistic ravings of their Tea Party colleagues. They can acknowledge that a responsibly balanced budget will require revenue increases, such as ending inefficient, wasteful tax loopholes and breaks that benefit the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
For their part, the President and his fellow Democrats in Congress must concede the necessity of substantial, but sensibly targeted, spending cuts. Given the size of the debt to be whittled down, these reductions must occur in such sensitive areas as farm subsidies, defense spending — and, yes, entitlement programs.
For now, both sides are exchanging their standard, tiresome clichés about the size and role of government. On Friday, though, Americans will start to feel real pain. If Congress and the President don’t prevent that, they had better have a good explanation ready.