Hark! Good news!
According to a recent Gallup survey, congressional approval is on the rise - from 14 percent in January to 15 percent in February. Unfortunately for Congress, this staggering increase of one whole percentage point is unlikely to stick around in the face of billions of dollars in spending cuts likely to take effect in March.
The sequester, which was agreed upon during the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, is the latest in a string of congressionally-manufactured crises. Simply put, the sequester is a set of budget cuts, worth a bit more than $1 trillion through 2021, including $85 billion this year, that will go into effect on March 1.
The cuts, which are evenly split between defense and discretionary spending, were designed as an incentive to force a so-called “super committee” to come up with a compromise to stabilize the federal debt. Essentially, the sequester was supposed to be so damaging that the congressional super committee would have to find some common ground in order to avert it.
As we know, Congress did not come up with a deal – not even close.
So. What now?
It’s difficult to say exactly what the effects of the sequester will be if (or more likely when) it comes to pass. While President Barack Obama has painted a grim picture of criminals hitting the streets and children losing access to daycare, it’s likely that the effects will be slightly less drastic. For most people, there will be no discernible difference between Feb. 28 and March 1.
However, the long-term effects will be more dire. With the economy still barely puttering along through a weak recovery – job growth is still struggling to outpace population growth – we can ill afford to lose tens of billions of dollars of GDP.
There’s still a chance Congress might find some way to avert the sequester. Unfortunately, this is extremely unlikely. In a recent Mother Jones blog post, Kevin Drum outlines the possible actions Congress could take to avert the cuts. However, it appears that there is only one option that has a non-zero chance of succeeding – “Kick the can down the road with some kind of small-ball deal.”
While unlikely, this “solution” at least has a chance. Spending cuts may sound good on paper but they become far less appealing when they have real negative effects on their home districts.
According to a Politico story, lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – are scrambling to protect their home turf from the sequester. Most elected officials do not want to go home and have to explain to their constituents why their district lost thousands of jobs on their watch. If nothing else, this shows that our representatives at least realize the potentially severe consequences of allowing these cuts to go into effect.
A short-term plan to avert the sequester is far from ideal – it would likely set us up for yet another dramatic, last-minute confrontation. However, given the alternative, it doesn’t seem like such a bad outcome. I’d choose possibly having the cuts happen in the future over definitely having the cuts now.
This entire situation speaks to the broader, more important issue of congressional dysfunction. The sequester is important, but it probably won’t ruin the economy. However, if Congress continues to manufacture these sorts of crises and continues their trend of unwillingness to work together, there is a very real possibility our all-too-fragile recovery could be shattered over the next two years.
If we can’t avert the sequester, hopefully Congress can at least learn something from it. And if they can’t, then let’s hope the electorate shows up in force to send a message in 2014.
Congressional approval may already be impressively low. However, we shouldn’t underestimate lawmakers’ ability to push it even lower.
Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in economics and math.