The disaster known as sequester began with a Tea Party revolt to a common practice -- raising the debt ceiling -- and when the dust had settled the U.S. government had managed to lose its AAA bond rating and the 2011 Budget Control Act had been passed.
That act created the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and laid down a set of conditions that would trigger a series of deep, draconian cuts to military and domestic programs, known as sequestration, should that bipartisan committee fail to come to an agreement on reduction in the federal deficit and development of a balanced budget.
Note that since that time, despite all the rhetoric, hot air and "viewing with alarm" from both parties, neither Congress nor the president have actually proposed a budget that would do either of those things (and the debt ceiling has been raised twice without anyone throwing a hissy fit -- the damage the first time around was bad enough).
The Budget Control Act created cuts that were so nasty, especially to the military, that everyone assumed Congress would work its butt off to meet the deadline and fix all that was ill with the economy (insert laugh, chortle, snort or guffaw here).
The famous "supercommittee" the act created to achieve deficit reduction and a balanced budget started by having some of its leading members declare, before it even met, that they wouldn't compromise on anything and the end result was predictable. Congress did nothing. Sequester became a certainty.
But that wasn't exactly a surprise. Of course Congress didn't do it. It would eliminate so much pork.
As an example, the president's budget this year -- which was rejected by the GOP- controlled House before it was even published -- cut some items that Congress insisted be put back into the budget. And it wasn't just the GOP that was stuffing the turkey we call a budget. Democrats also were pulling for their pet projects.
One southern congressman, for example, a very conservative type who voted for sequester, objected to a cut in Department of Energy funding for fusion reactor research and held up the nomination of the new DOE secretary until he got what he wanted -- a new research facility (that DOE said it didn't need right now) in his district where construction alone was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
And although DoD wants to do some serious trimming, in light of the massive cuts it's facing from both sequester and the ending of our long national nightmare of wars in the Mideast, every effort to do so has been thwarted by Congress.
The best example is an effort by the Pentagon to cut a squadron of transport aircraft from an Air National Guard base in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania delegation (which voted for sequester) screamed bloody murder and insisted no changes to force structure take place until a special committee could analyze the validity of any such move. So Congress created the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. Its report was due March 31 of this year. Its first (and so far only) member, was appointed April 4.
Meanwhile, DoD can't go a week these days without some high official demanding a BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure process). But Congress doesn't want to do a BRAC -- at least not until after the next Congressional election. God help them that they would actually do something that DoD says would save it billions if it might jeopardize their re-election.
Congress didn't seem to care about the lost housing subsidies and the cuts to Head Start due to sequester, or the cuts to workplace safety programs, health and safety inspections and the cuts in the criminal justice system that will make it harder to keep our streets safer. Members of Congress barely said a word about that. Instead, they beat their breasts about the White House cutting its tours and manipulated the media into turning that into a major scandal, thus diverting attention from real issues.
The hundreds of thousands of federal employees who will be taking pay cuts as deep as 20 percent in some cases, were not a concern, either. The attitude of Congress seems to be that if those people have trouble putting bread on the table, well, let them eat cake.
Congress itself, of course, is exempt from the pay cuts of sequester, but since a majority of its members are millionaires, it probably wouldn't have hurt many of them too much, anyway. They could have given it up as window dressing and not felt a pinch at all.
At the same time, the effects of sequester are starting to trickle down to the local level. I haven't heard, however, anybody from Congress worrying about cuts to the Meals on Wheels program, which keeps poor senior citizen shut-ins from going hungry. If they starve, they won't be able to vote anyway, so why worry.
Meanwhile, when a special commission created by Congress to deal with the problem of massive unemployment and underemployment in this country met for the first time a couple weeks ago, only ONE of the members of the committee showed up (one Democrat out of seven and zero Republicans out of eight)!
But when things began to affect them -- members of Congress and their rich campaign donors -- action was swift.
Look at what happened with the air traffic control system. Small airports across the country were going to lose their control towers. One was Friedman Memorial up in the Sun Valley area, an airport that has the highest number of private jet aircraft registered there in the world and one that's scary to fly into WITH air traffic control. Add that to the fact that commuter jets flying between Washington on major cities in the northeast were starting to suffer delays of up to 90 minutes, and the people flying them tended to include rich campaign donors who didn't want to travel by commuter train (it was beneath their rich and rarefied dignity to do so), Congress swiftly moved to pass an exemption to sequester.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to be noticing the inconvenient fact that according to the GAO, the deficit is tumbling and at the current rate of reduction will be below $1 trillion by the end of the Obama administration.
This, of course, has little if anything to do with sequester, which might actually throw us back into a recession, but oddly enough, a lot to do with deficit spending and health care costs.
Deficit spending got the economy going again from its meltdown point in 2008-9. Although I'm convinced the spending projects the White House approved could have been a lot better focused -- like on building or repairing roads, bridges and schools (rather than Solandra) -- the point is it got money moving in the economy again, which saved some people on Main Street and got the economy slowly recovering. We're still waiting for Wall Street and big businesses to "trickle down" and start pouring their record amounts of cash reserves into the economy.
I've always contended, however, Main Street and the middle class were going to lead us out of this recession while the big money sat back and waited for things to get better first. Well, it looks like Main Street -- the people who actually work and get their fingers dirty -- is doing it. As a result, more people have jobs and therefore are paying taxes and the deficit is therefore starting to fall.
At the same time, health care costs are starting to flatten out, after running 4-5 times the national inflation rate for the last two decades. That resulted in deficit projections being lowered from the prior estimates that had assumed higher inflation rates (all the huge deficit numbers you hear are 10-year projections).
The reduction in the pace of growth of health care costs has almost nothing to do with Obamacare, however, but everything to do with a slowdown in new procedures, equipment and drugs, which always are more expensive at the beginning than after they've become established, as they are finally becoming.
Sometimes, the economy is like quantum physics. It doesn't make sense, but counterintuitive things actually work. However, when it comes to Congress -- and we're talking both sides of the aisle here -- a lot of what it does, like sequester, goes beyond being counterintuitive and lands firmly in the realm of counterproductive.
It's as if Congress can't grasp what it's like in the real world, where people actually work for a living (or want to).
Congress can't figure out why its approval numbers are lower than those for hookers, even though it does its best to prostitute itself for big businesses, Wall Street and large campaign donors. But then, hookers at least get value for services rendered. Congress just screws you.