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What Sequestration Should Really Look Like

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It’s official: sequestration has begun. Barack Obama has formally signed an order to put into effect the across-the-board government spending cuts known as “sequestration.”

After failing to broker a deal at a meeting between Democratic (Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) and Republican (John Boehner and Mitch McConnell) House and Senate leaders, the president told journalists, “Not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain though will be real. Beginning this week, many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in significant ways.”

The Budget Control Act (BCA) has come back to life with a vengeance, or so the American people have been led to believe. Signed into law (S.365, P.L. 112-25) by Obama on August 2, 2011, the BCA immediately raised the debt ceiling by $400 billion (to $14.694 trillion) and included provisions allowing the president to request two additional increases (up to $16.394 trillion), which, naturally, he did. The BCA also required Congress to vote on a balanced-budget amendment (by December 31, 2011) and to set up the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the Supercommittee), whose goal was to produce legislation (by November 23, 2011) that would reduce the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion or more over fiscal years 2012 to 2021. If the Supercommittee, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans, could not agree on deficit-reduction legislation (by December 23, 2011), a series of automatic across-the-board spending cuts would kick in (on January 2, 2013), totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, and split evenly between defense and domestic discretionary spending (as opposed to mandatory spending; that is, spending on entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and refundable tax credits). The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, passed by the lame-duck Congress to avert the “fiscal cliff,” made permanent the so-called Bush tax cuts, raised the top marginal tax rate, increased the estate tax, and delayed the start of the sequester until March 1, 2013.

But as Sheldon Richman recently explained,

While most commentators and reporters talk about “draconian” budget cuts, occasionally someone points out that these are not true cuts, but only reductions in the rate of increase. Washington uses baseline budgeting, which builds in spending increases for future years. In Washington bureaucratese, reducing a projected increase is a “cut.”

Therefore, “a sequester merely means,” says Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute, “that spending climbs by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.”

But let’s suppose for a moment that these across-the-board spending cuts are actually real cuts and not just reductions in the rate of spending increases. In the grand scheme of things, they are but a pittance, considering that the federal government spends about $3.5 trillion a year.

Most of what the federal government spends is clearly wasteful, harmful, or unconstitutional. Consequently, there is a big difference between what sequestration looks like now and what sequestration should really look like. Here are seven examples — based on the standards of constitutionality and legitimacy instead of a reduction in the rate of growth — of what sequestration should really look like:

1. The War in Afghanistan

This unnecessary, senseless, and unjust foreign war has been going on now for more than ten years. More than 2,100 American soldiers are dead with thousands of others still suffering with traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs, and post-traumatic stress disorder — if they have not committed suicide already. It costs $1 million to keep one soldier in Afghanistan for one year. Those who don’t finish out the year because they are killed by a bomb or by the Afghan troops they are training, tragically die in vain and for a lie, not in defense of the country. If there is any federal spending that needs to be sequestered it is spending on foreign wars. But even if the war in Afghanistan were ended today and all U.S. military personnel left the country tomorrow, the United States still has more than a thousand foreign military facilities and troops stationed in more than 150 countries and territories. Regardless of the fear-mongering of conservative advocates of ever-increasing defense budgets, sequestration that includes military spending will not make the country less safe.

2. Medicare and Medicaid

Medicare and Medicaid are second- and third-largest entitlement programs of the federal government (the first is Social Security). Medicare is government-funded health care for those 65 and over or those who are permanently disabled. Medicaid is government-funded health care for the poor. It is a joint federal-state program that is administered by the states. Although Republicans have nothing but bad things to say about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, their criticisms of Medicare and Medicaid never seem to extend beyond the usual canard of inefficiency, waste, fraud, and abuse. But what are Medicare and Medicaid if they are not income-transfer programs and illegitimate functions of government? Because the federal government has no constitutional authority to provide for anyone’s medical care, these programs should be sequestered out of existence and real medical freedom instituted in their place.

3. Welfare

Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty has utterly failed to alleviate poverty and the dependency created by federal welfare programs. Although the term “welfare” has fallen into disuse, with “income security,” “entitlement,” or “public assistance” programs now being the usual terms for it, changing the name doesn’t change the nature of the program. Like Medicare and Medicaid, federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Head Start, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), unemployment compensation, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), subsidized housing, refundable tax credits, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are both income-transfer programs and illegitimate functions of government. Sequestration shouldn’t just trim these programs around the edges; it should eliminate them in their entirety.

4. The Department of Education

The current cabinet-level federal Department of Education did not begin operation until 1980. It has a budget of close to $70 billion and employs about 3,600 bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and about another 1,400 in ten regional offices. Not a one of them directly educates a child. But since the federal government has been given no authority whatsoever by the Constitution to have anything to do with education, eliminating the Department of Education should be high up on any list of federal programs subject to sequestration. That also means that Pell Grants and federal mandates, initiatives, requirements, regulations, and directives should be replaced with education freedom.

5. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

According to the latest DEA Fact Sheet, the agency “has 226 offices organized in 21 divisions throughout the United States and works closely with state and local partners to investigate and prosecute violators of our drug laws and those who facilitate them.” The DEA also “has 86 offices in 67 countries around the world.” The DEA employs “more than 10,000 men and women, including nearly 5,000 Special Agents, 500 Diversion Investigators, 800 Intelligence Research Specialists, and 300 Chemists.” The DEA’s annual budget is $3 billion. The reason that this entire agency should be sequestered is not just that it is not authorized by the Constitution, but because the war on drugs is also a war on the free market, a free society, and freedom itself.

6. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA)

The TSA was hurriedly created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But according to the joint study of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Oversight and Government Reform, after TSA spending of more than $56 billion over its first ten years, flying is no safer than it was before 9/11; TSA staff levels have increased nearly 400 percent, even though total passenger enplanements increased by less than 12 percent; more employees have left the TSA than are currently employed by the agency; and the TSA “has failed to detect any major terrorist threat since 9/11.” In the past ten years, almost 400 TSA personnel have been fired for stealing from passengers. The TSA’s invasive pat downs and security checks have made it one of the most hated government agencies. But the main reason the TSA should be sequestered out of existence is that it amounts to the federal government’s forcibly providing security for private companies. The federal government’s stationing security agents at airports should be seen as just as ludicrous as the federal government’s doing the same at Burger King, Pizza Hut, or Sears. And even as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned Americans about longer lines at airports due to the sequester, it was revealed that the TSA, just before the sequester, sealed a $50-million deal to purchase new uniforms for its agents.

7. Foreign Aid

Even after the sequester began to supposedly affect Americans, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would give Egypt $250 million more in foreign aid. Since their peace accord in 1979, Egypt and Israel have been the top two recipients of U.S. foreign aid, accounting for about one-third of all foreign-aid spending. Since World War II, the U.S. government has dispensed hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid in a variety of forms to more than 150 countries. About $40 billion a year is looted from American taxpayers and given to corrupt foreign regimes and their privileged contractors. Foreign aid is often just an elaborate system of bribes and rewards based on a country’s political alignment. But the purpose, recipient, cost, and benefit of the aid are irrelevant. Because all foreign-aid money spent must first be confiscated from American taxpayers, it should face the full force of a sequester.

Many more examples of wasteful, harmful, and unconstitutional spending by the federal government could be given. But regardless of all the whining, hand-wringing, and fear-mongering about the sequester, there is no real sequestration taking place. In fact, the federal government in February borrowed nearly six times as much as it intends to save with the sequester over the rest of the fiscal year. To really make a difference, the wholesale elimination of illegitimate and unconstitutional federal agencies, bureaus, and departments must be part of any sequestration.

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