from Renewing America

The Sequester: What Do Americans Want From Government?

Glacier National Park (akalat/Flickr).

February 26, 2013

Glacier National Park (akalat/Flickr).
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

On many sunny weekends, I go walking with my wife and kids along the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland, using the access at Carderock Recreation area in the C&O Canal National Historic Park. There is a public restroom operated by the National Park Service, an agency of the Interior Department, at the parking lot where the trail begins. It is normally open throughout the year. But when I went there last weekend, I noticed that the facility was closed, with a padlock on the door.

I have no idea whether this is the result of the “sequester” that kicks in March 1, in which the federal government must cut $85 billion from discretionary spending – largely defense and domestic programs -- through the rest of this fiscal year. But it got me to do something that the whole country should be doing right now, which is thinking about what parts of government actually matter to our day-to-day lives.

The Obama administration over the weekend put out detailed lists of the programs that may be affected by the sudden budget cuts. It is certainly fair to say that these are political documents intended to put pressure on the Republicans in Congress, and that the bureaucracy may well be able to wring out efficiencies that allow for greater savings with less disruption. It’s also true that non-defense discretionary spending has risen significantly under the Obama administration, though it is still less than 20 percent of the federal budget and is currently on track to fall sharply even without the sequester. It is the big health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, along with Social Security, that eat up most of our tax dollars and are driving the budget deficits, not the restroom at Carderock.

If the sequester indeed does have the impact that the administration suggests, here are the things that I know will affect my life:

  • Cuts in air traffic control and transportation security officials. I fly quite regularly, and the airports are run on such a tight schedule that they barely work at the current staffing levels. Even if the delays are not as bad as Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has warned, I will have to start arriving much earlier for each flight just in case.
  • Reductions in Customs and Border  Protection officials at the land borders. I frequently drive across one of the border crossings to Canada to visit family, particularly in the heavy summer travel season. Longer wait times returning to the United States will add to what are already long car trips.
  • Cuts in National Park staff. Many of our family holidays are spent in one of the national parks, and staff furloughs will likely result in the closing of some campgrounds and visitor centers, and the elimination of seasonal interpreters.

There are a number of other possibilities that could affect us, including reductions in teachers in the public schools and cuts to local law enforcement (there’s been a lot of petty theft in my neighborhood lately, as well as reports of a man in his 40s approaching young girls in a threatening way, which makes me want more cops on the street, not fewer). And then there are things I simply care about even though they may not affect me directly, such as fish and wildlife preservation.

It would be fair to dismiss my list as a series of minor inconveniences. For some people, such as those with pre-school children in Head Start programs, those with children in special education, those relying on work-study jobs to pay for college, or seniors in need of supplemental meals, the impacts could be far more severe. And it’s hard to gauge the long-term impact of some of the cuts, such as research and development spending that is critical to the country’s future prosperity, not to mention the defense cuts that could weaken national security.

No, the world as we know it will not end from $85 billion in cuts to federal discretionary spending. The number could probably be even larger and most of us would manage to muddle through somehow. But the real question is, what are these things worth to Americans? My small list is actually worth quite a lot to me.

The sequester is a lousy way to govern, and stupidly disruptive at a time when the U.S. economy is still fragile and could easily be tipped back into recession. But it may have some benefits in terms of the public discourse. The United States remains deeply divided over the very legitimacy of many government programs. The sequester will be a sort of experiment – do Americans actually value what their government is providing, or are they indifferent? If the answer is the latter, then the sequester cuts will only be the first of far more to come.