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Editorial: Non-Problem Solved; The Sequester Reconsidered

Think back — back before we knew that the IRS was unacceptably targeting right-wing groups for scrutiny or that the Department of Justice was unbelievably searching the phone records of journalists. Think all the way back to February, when all anyone in Washington was talking about was the country’s fiscal problems, and how we needed to do something to fix them, right now, even if it meant clasping hands and going over the so-called “fiscal cliff” into the suicide pact of sequestration.

Well, beneath the din of all the scandal talk, there was some pretty important news about the country’s fiscal condition last week: The deficit is shrinking.

Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report on its budget projections. This year’s deficit, the CBO expects, will be $642 billion, the smallest since 2008 and only half as large as the 2009 deficit, in terms of size relative to the economy. Just a few months ago, the CBO thought this year’s deficit would be about $200 billion higher.

Most of the change since February the CBO attributes to temporary factors, such as rich people claiming higher incomes than expected in 2012, because they figured tax rates would rise in 2013. But there’s an overall trend that has more to do with tax hikes, spending cuts, and most importantly, a strengthening economy.

None of this means we’re out of the fiscal woods. Though the deficit looks to be reasonable these next couple of years, it will go up again a few years down the road, mostly because the country will be paying more to take care of more old people, as well as for debt service.

Which brings us back to sequestration, the automatic cuts Congress and the president agreed to back in 2011 as an incentive to come up with an actual fiscal plan. The incentive didn’t work, and the cuts began to go into effect in March — $1.2 trillion over 10 years to domestic and military programs.

This sounds like a response drawn up by people very concerned with a big deficit problem over the next couple of years. But we don’t have that problem — and not only because of sequestration cuts, which are a small piece of the puzzle. Our problem is further off, and has to do with spending on the elderly.

You know what would help address that problem? Reforms to major health-care spending, and economic growth. Sequestration doesn’t do the first and actively counteracts the second, by cutting jobs and slowing the economy.

If you’re keeping score at home, this means that our government has responded to an oncoming problem by concocting a solution to a non-problem, which happens to make the actual problem worse. And it’s hurting people in the process by removing needed assistance, like food stamps, in a time of suffering.

The fight over sequestration is really a fight about the role of government: Should it provide security for the vulnerable? Get the heck out of the way? Whatever your position, we’re pretty sure no one supports government taking on the role it’s playing now: Mucking things up for the rest of us.

Philadelphia Daily News