Tag Archives: Sequester

“Rumors” is a bar in Washington, D.C.  (Never been there.)  Rumors are also all we have to go on in anticipating a deal coming out of the budget-resolution negotiations this month.

The rumor is that a deal is relatively close, but still not in hand.  That makes life a bit tricky for those outside the room.  Virtually the entire purpose of this negotiation is to settle upon a number for the total annual appropriations – a so-called “302(a) allocation” – for the ongoing fiscal year (2014).  This is small ball, not a grand bargain.  By the ideal-world calendar, the appropriators would have received that total number on April 15, and that entire process would have been finished on September 30,.  So now, instead of the appropriators receiving their target five and one half months before the fiscal year, they are waiting for the number two and one half months into the fiscal year.  (No pressure, guys.)

Why is that a problem?  The toughest annual appropriations decisions are those over the last few dollars.  And it is virtually impossible even to prepare for those decisions if you do not know even to a close-enough-for-jazz tolerance how many last few dollars there are going to be.

But beyond that point, the appropriators’ ambition this year was to do legislation a little more tailored than a last-year-plus-or-minus-X-percent across-the-board full-year continuing resolution (CR), which has been the highly unfortunate recent pattern.  Even those most viscerally opposed to government as an institution should reject that approach, and instead want appropriations laws that dig much deeper – that perform “oversight” to weed out and disproportionately cut or repeal the least-cost-effective programs.

At least to take a crack at such meaningful legislation, the appropriators asked for their 302(a) allocation to be determined by about a week ago.  Without that number in hand, and with the current CR expiring on January 15, the chances of further short-term CRs and still-later final appropriations legislation are increasing by the minute.  And the shorter the duration of any real appropriations legislation, the less the potential beneficial impact of any well-chosen adjustments, the harder for well-meaning executive branch managers to do their jobs, and the more-abrupt any changes of appropriations levels need to be to hit an annual total much different from the annual rate of the initial part-year CR.

But it is not dreadfully surprising that the budget-resolution negotiators are having a hard time delivering their final numbers.  The substantive preferences of the House and the Senate have little in common.  And especially in the House, but even in the Senate, there is considerable diversity of opinion within the majority.  A deal cut by the House majority’s negotiator could be rejected by his own caucus and so rendered null, void, and an enormous waste of time and loss of face.  Therefore, the negotiation entails frequent consultations with the leaderships and at least indirectly with the full caucuses, which itself takes a lot of time.

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Just about everybody is familiar with the bureaucratic concept of “turf.”  As in, “That’s my turf.”  In other words, stay off.

However, experience indicates that there is an associated bureaucratic concept which is much less widely recognized: “grass.”  As in, “That’s my turf – so don’t you tell me that I need to cut the grass.”

Both “turf” and “grass” are at play in the current high-level dispute over the sequester of federal spending.  It is worth a review of the bidding thus far.

The sequester was written into law in the debt-limit deal of August 2011.  It was intended to be a fail-safe device in case the so-called “Supercommittee” failed to achieve its goal of $1.2 trillion of budget savings.  The Supercommittee duly failed.  The sequester was postponed from the beginning of this year to the beginning of this March – i.e., Friday.  The two parties in Washington argue over whose idea it was, who voted for it, and whose intransigence is causing it now to appear inevitable.  Those questions may be of academic interest, but not much more.

The importance of Who Shot the Federal Government As We Know It is limited because there is little dispute that the sequester is a Bad Thing.  Oh, there are some who say that there is a debt crisis going on, and so we must cut something.  But just about everyone recognizes that the sequester will not solve the problem.  More specifically, even those who would accept the sequester with the least remorse understand two facts:  First, if we do not have the sequester, the federal government’s finances will explode without fundamental reform of health care.  And second, if we do have the sequester, the federal government’s finances will explode without fundamental reform of health care.  The sequester will only buy time.  A little.

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