DAVID IGNATIUS: The sequester’s bite

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – For people (like me) who worry that the U.S. government is becoming dysfunctional, it’s worth studying the subtle and largely hidden effects of sequestration on the U.S. military and other agencies. What’s happening is the slow-motion decay of programs and readiness, which should scare the heck out of most citizens.
Sequestration, you will remember, was the meat-ax approach to budget cutting whose consequences were thought to be so capricious and damaging that Congress would have to come up with a more rational alternative. Congress instead chose the path of least resistance – which was doing nothing – so the automatic, across-the-board cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act took effect in March.
The conventional wisdom now seems to be that sequestration isn’t as bad as people expected, and that the Obama administration cried ‘wolf!’ unnecessarily. Sorry, but the wolf is here all right; he’s just eating the seed corn stored out of sight in the warehouse, as opposed to the food on the table.
Let’s start with effects on the military – not because the Pentagon deserves any special budget breaks but because the consequences are easy to understand. A simple way to think about it is that sequestration is preserving what’s politically popular – soldiers’ pay, veterans’ benefits, military bases and the like – and cutting things such as training that the politicians care little about. The effect, a few years from now, will be degraded performance.
The Air Force has grounded 13 fighter squadrons, or about one-third of its total.
The Army is sharply cutting training above the basic squad and platoon level.
The Navy reports that by the end of this fiscal year, two-thirds of its non-deployed ships and aviation squadrons won’t meet readiness targets.
The effects on the intelligence community also are scary. Contracts, collection systems and analysis are all being trimmed. Some satellite reconnaissance systems may be decommissioned.
Now, let’s look at civilian programs. Here, again, the effects are mostly hidden from immediate view, but they could impact the long-term health, education and welfare of the country.
The National Institutes of Health has delayed or halted 700 research awards that help fund the study of diseases affecting millions of Americans. The Labor Department estimates that 1.5 million claimants for emergency unemployment compensation have been affected. The Education Department says nearly $600 million has been cut from special education funding and $700 million from assistance to low-income school districts.
What’s depressing is that the sequestration cuts are being imposed in part so that Congress can avoid making decisions about real fiscal reforms that add revenues and reduce spiraling future costs in Medicare and Social Security. People who wonder why the federal government’s performance is deteriorating should consider what their family or business finances would look like if they had to be approved by Congress.
Syndicated columnist David Ignatius can be reached at davidignatius@washpost.com.