How America Became a Third World Country
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It wasn’t that cutting federal spending at those levels would necessarily have been devastating in 2013, though in an already weakened economy any cutbacks would have hurt. Rather, sequestration proved particularly corrosive from the start because all types of public spending -- from grants for renewable energy research and disadvantaged public schools to HIV testing -- were to be gutted equally, as if all of it were just fat to be trimmed. Even monitoring systems for possible natural disasters like river flooding or an imminent volcanic eruption began to be shut down. Over time the cuts would be vast: $85 billion in the first year and $110 billion in each year after that, for more than $1 trillion in cuts over a decade on top of other reductions already in place.
Once lawmakers wrote sequestration into law they had more than a year to wise up. Yet they did nothing to draft an alternate plan and didn’t even start pointing out the havoc-to-come until just weeks before the deadline. Then they gave themselves a couple more months -- until March 1, 2013 -- to work out a deal, which they didn’t. All this is, of course, ancient history, but even a decade later, the record of folly is worth reviewing.
If you remember, they tweeted while Rome burned. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for instance, sent out dozens of tweets to say Democrats were responsible: “The president proposed sequester, had 18 mo. to prioritize cuts, and did nothing,” he typically wrote, while he no less typically did nothing. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted back: “It’s not too late to avert the damaging #sequester cuts, for which an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted.” And that became the pattern for a decade of American political gridlock, still not broken today.
March 1st came and went, so the budgetary axe began to fall.
At first, it didn’t seem so bad. Yes, the cuts weren't quite as across the board as expected. The meat industry, for example, protested because health inspector furloughs would slow its production lines, so Congress patched the problem and spared those inspectors. But meat production aside, there was a sense that the cuts might not be so bad after all.
They were to be doled out based on a formula for meeting the arbitrary target of $85 billion in reductions in 2013, and no one knew precisely what would happen to any given program. In April, more than a month after the cuts had begun, the White House issued the president’s budget proposal for the following year, an annual milestone that typically included detailed information about federal spending in the current year. But across thousands of pages of documents and tables, the new budget ignored sequestration, and so reported meaningless 2013 numbers, because even the White House couldn’t say exactly what impact these cuts would have on programs and public investment across the country.
As it happened, they didn’t have to wait long to find out. The first ripples of impact began to spread quickly indeed. Losing some government funding, cancer clinics in New Mexico and Connecticut turned away patients. In Kentucky, Oregon, and Montana, shelters for victims of domestic violence cut services. In New York, Maryland, and Alabama, public defenders were furloughed, limiting access to justice for low-income people. In Illinois and Minnesota, public school teachers were laid off. In Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi, Head Start shortened the school year, while in Kansas and Indiana, some low-income children simply lost access to the program entirely. In Alaska, a substance abuse clinic shut down. Across the country, Meals on Wheels cut four million meals for seniors in need.