Editorial: Leave It to Cleaver; Assessing the Impact of Sequestration

Winston Churchill famously observed that there is “nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result.” Escaping a meat-cleaver attack without experiencing too much pain has its own rewards as well.

The cleaver assault comes by way of government cuts resulting from sequestration — the spending reductions that automatically kicked in when Congress and the Obama administration failed to meet a self-imposed deadline for agreeing on a plan to reduce the deficit. The threat of the sequester was often expressed with a graphic description intended to convey the indiscriminate nature of the $85 billion in mandatory cuts: a brutal instrument would be brought to bear on crucial and less-essential federal programs, and the damage done would be severe and unnecessary.

Four months after the warning was issued, The Washington Post examined 48 of the specific predictions of doom issued by the White House about sequestration’s effects and determined that the consequences in many cases turned out to be less dire than predicted. While about one-quarter of the predictions couldn’t be tested because government officials said it was too early to assess the impact, the Post reported that the warnings were flat-out wrong in half the cases.

Much of that can be explained by the fact that the straitjacket Congress prescribed for federal agencies had more wiggle room than advertised. Congress granted some departments flexibility to shift spending to allow cuts to be directed at lower-priority components — travel and conferences, for example — and spare items that would directly affect services. In other cases, Congress recognized that furloughing workers would have unacceptable results and furnished the money to avert them. In April, for example, it responded to slowdowns at airports by providing the funding for full staffing of air-traffic control towers. And some agencies pulled off creative bookkeeping to minimize the impact — reducing their spending by “cutting” money that had been allocated but turned out not to be needed. The Justice Department avoided furloughing FBI agents and prison guards that way.

That Congress would have the sense to give agencies some leeway to minimize the damage is noteworthy only in that it’s noteworthy. Is Congress so ideologically blinkered that it might insist on imposing entirely avoidable pain? Don’t answer that question.

Also noteworthy are the instances in which the predicted damage turned out to be real, and in some cases worse. The long-term unemployed, for example, didn’t fare as well as air-travelers: Cuts to their benefits turned out to be deeper than forecast. The Pentagon coped with sequestration by cutting back on training for in the Army, ship deployments for the Navy and flying time for Air Force training — corner-cutting that will be unnoticeable as long as the country doesn’t find its national security threatened. And, according to The Post, more than 125,000 federal employees have been furloughed because of sequestration — payroll savings that are sure to have a direct impact on people and programs, although of varying degree.

We don’t expect this report to have much influence on the budget debate itself. Republicans are sure to seize the opportunity to denounce the administration for indulging in scare-mongering and call for additional cuts. Democrats will argue that the Obama administration couldn’t have known that Congress would permit federal agencies the flexibility to limit the damage, and that it’s still difficult to assess the overall economic damage of lowering spending before prosperity has returned.

Two conclusions strike us as inescapable. One, no matter how the real damage compares with what was predicted, far less would have occurred had Congress done its job and engaged in thoughtful budgeting. Two, the respite from the congressional posturing and bluster that accompanies any budget showdown has been a pleasure.