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Sat., March 2, 2013

Editorial: Congress bungles shot to battle budget bloat

The federal budget sequester was designed to be a hare-brained scheme so obviously stupid that our nation’s leaders wouldn’t allow it to unfold.

But down the rabbit hole we go.

Rather than compromise on a smarter way to achieve $2.1 trillion in savings over the next decade, this plan hatched in summer 2011 in exchange for raising the debt ceiling calls for across-the-board spending cuts, one-half from defense programs and one-half from other discretionary spending. The first year’s installment is $85 billion. That was the first stupid move.

About 55 percent of the budget, covering Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and safety-net programs, was walled off from consideration, meaning deeper cuts elsewhere. That was another stupid move. Fairchild Air Force Base will be forced to curtail flights, and the civilian workforce, numbering about 700 people, could face furloughs and layoffs.

Government agencies noticed the sequester gives them little discretion for prioritizing cuts, so they clamored for more flexibility. But a rabidly partisan Congress was unwilling to come up with a smarter plan. That was a stupid non-move that could turn out to be dangerous.

For instance, public health programs face $2.4 billion in cuts, which could mean 840,000 fewer vaccinations for children.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Department is facing across-the-board cuts of $1.9 billion this year, including $400 million earmarked for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which recently discovered six more underground tanks leaking radioactive sludge.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced the sequester will delay clean-up of high-risk sites, such as Hanford, the Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

While DOE workers in the Tri-Cities won’t be subject to furloughs, most of the nearly 9,000 employees at Hanford work for private contractors, and the Tri-City Herald reports that thousands of them could be laid off or furloughed.

Noting the discovery of the leaking tanks, Gov. Jay Inslee says the sequester couldn’t have come at a worse time.

If Congress had dropped the partisanship and given agencies more flexibility, the impact of the budget cuts wouldn’t be as scary. The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday highlighting government practices that waste billions of dollars annually. For instance, it found 44 job-training programs, 80 transportation programs for the poor and disabled, and 82 programs to promote teacher quality.

In the Energy Department alone, GAO reported that multiple agencies oversee federal fleet energy goals and domestic ethanol production. But rather than make surgical cuts to target bureaucratic waste, the sequester calls for ham-handed cuts that hit vital programs, too.

In agreeing to the sequester, Congress and the president underestimated their own dysfunction. They can still correct this miscalculation by replacing sequestration with a budget-cutting plan that’s deliberately smart.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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