CFR Presents

Renewing America

Ideas and initiatives for rebuilding American economic strength.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


The Sequester: What Do Americans Want From Government?

by Edward Alden
February 26, 2013

Glacier National Park (akalat/Flickr). Glacier National Park (akalat/Flickr).


On many sunny weekends, I go walking with my wife and kids along the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland, using the access at Carderock Recreation area in the C&O Canal National Historic Park. There is a public restroom operated by the National Park Service, an agency of the Interior Department, at the parking lot where the trail begins. It is normally open throughout the year. But when I went there last weekend, I noticed that the facility was closed, with a padlock on the door.

I have no idea whether this is the result of the “sequester” that kicks in March 1, in which the federal government must cut $85 billion from discretionary spending – largely defense and domestic programs — through the rest of this fiscal year. But it got me to do something that the whole country should be doing right now, which is thinking about what parts of government actually matter to our day-to-day lives.

The Obama administration over the weekend put out detailed lists of the programs that may be affected by the sudden budget cuts. It is certainly fair to say that these are political documents intended to put pressure on the Republicans in Congress, and that the bureaucracy may well be able to wring out efficiencies that allow for greater savings with less disruption. It’s also true that non-defense discretionary spending has risen significantly under the Obama administration, though it is still less than 20 percent of the federal budget and is currently on track to fall sharply even without the sequester. It is the big health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, along with Social Security, that eat up most of our tax dollars and are driving the budget deficits, not the restroom at Carderock.

If the sequester indeed does have the impact that the administration suggests, here are the things that I know will affect my life:

  • Cuts in air traffic control and transportation security officials. I fly quite regularly, and the airports are run on such a tight schedule that they barely work at the current staffing levels. Even if the delays are not as bad as Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has warned, I will have to start arriving much earlier for each flight just in case.
  • Reductions in Customs and Border  Protection officials at the land borders. I frequently drive across one of the border crossings to Canada to visit family, particularly in the heavy summer travel season. Longer wait times returning to the United States will add to what are already long car trips.
  • Cuts in National Park staff. Many of our family holidays are spent in one of the national parks, and staff furloughs will likely result in the closing of some campgrounds and visitor centers, and the elimination of seasonal interpreters.

There are a number of other possibilities that could affect us, including reductions in teachers in the public schools and cuts to local law enforcement (there’s been a lot of petty theft in my neighborhood lately, as well as reports of a man in his 40s approaching young girls in a threatening way, which makes me want more cops on the street, not fewer). And then there are things I simply care about even though they may not affect me directly, such as fish and wildlife preservation.

It would be fair to dismiss my list as a series of minor inconveniences. For some people, such as those with pre-school children in Head Start programs, those with children in special education, those relying on work-study jobs to pay for college, or seniors in need of supplemental meals, the impacts could be far more severe. And it’s hard to gauge the long-term impact of some of the cuts, such as research and development spending that is critical to the country’s future prosperity, not to mention the defense cuts that could weaken national security.

No, the world as we know it will not end from $85 billion in cuts to federal discretionary spending. The number could probably be even larger and most of us would manage to muddle through somehow. But the real question is, what are these things worth to Americans? My small list is actually worth quite a lot to me.

The sequester is a lousy way to govern, and stupidly disruptive at a time when the U.S. economy is still fragile and could easily be tipped back into recession. But it may have some benefits in terms of the public discourse. The United States remains deeply divided over the very legitimacy of many government programs. The sequester will be a sort of experiment – do Americans actually value what their government is providing, or are they indifferent? If the answer is the latter, then the sequester cuts will only be the first of far more to come.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Gary cook

    Please focus on where the cuts should be made, rather than assuming that the inconveniences have to happen — none of what you want has to to be eliminated – these threats are nothing more than political grandstanding by the current administration.

  • Posted by Ed Hutchinson

    The Social Security and Medicare programs do not “eat up” a penny of “our tax dollars” from the general fund, contrary to the posting. Every penny ever spent on SS and Medicare has been specifically taxed from employees and employers payroll specifically for the purposes of these programs. If the interest on the debt caused by borrowing from the surplus in the SS system is a burden, then that burden was created by the general fund uses to which the borrowed money was applied. If we paid taxes specifically for oil company subsidies or specifically for wars we would see those taxes differently.

  • Posted by Patrick Reardon

    As President Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”
    Most things that government does, it does very poorly. Therefore, small government is the best government.

  • Posted by Edward Bauman

    The ideology of small government is based on nothing more than assumptions about what is good and what is bad. Assumptions based on nothing more than opinion do not represent either fact or information.

    The added assumption that small government is best is without merit given that size is not the issue, whereas the complexity of governing in a modern industrialized world of 200 plus countries very much is. The right size of government is completely dependent on the scope of its responsibilities.

    The failure of governance in the U.S. is the reduction of multitudes of important issues to rigid ideological tenets by some. No successful business is run that way, so expecting government to simply conform to ideology is equally as foolish at best and dysfunctional in practice. Complexity doesn’t cease to exist as a result of simplistic assumptions.

    Eclectic Pragmatist —

  • Posted by Richard Huber

    Admittedly the sequester is a blunt instrument, but perhaps the only one capable of significantly rolling back our totally disproportionate spending on defense. Let’s not forget that we spend as much on defense as the next 13 largest spending countries do COMBINED! Starting with cutting a mere $46 billion won’t be very visible in the immense military budget that we have, but it’s a beginning.

    Since the vast web of military contractors are among the largest contributors to members of Congress, who in turn are beholden to these contributors, it is unlikely that Congress could ever get the courage to start cutting the enormous amounts of fat (50,000 troops in Japan), waste, unneeded weapons (the Osprey & the F-35 as examples) and general mismanagement that exists in this huge branch of our government. Therefore perhaps the sequester is the only way.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required