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Patty Culhane Headshot

America Meet Austerity

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Politicians in the U.S. are poking at one of my biggest pet peeves. Most broadcast journalists have certain words or phrases that annoy them. I personally hate when anyone says, "the car collided with the tree." It makes me picture a tree getting up on its roots and running at a car.

I also hate the word austerity. It just isn't used in everyday conversation, which is what we TV talkers strive for. Now, they bring me "sequestration". I know -- doesn't it just roll off the tongue? Up until now, it was only ever used to describe a U.S. trial jury being kept in hotel rooms. Still, it's all the talk at the White House, Capitol Hill and increasingly in communities across America.

To put it simply, it's called sequester because it's an automatic cut. It means government programs that people depend on will lose funding, but members of Congress won't have to face TV ads from potential opponents that say "he voted to cut food stamps... etc." Can't you just picture the video of hungry children?

This is all happening because of last year's debate over raising the debt ceiling. At the time, Republicans demanded deficit reduction. They got it, but now the idea of cutting one trillion dollars over ten years has lawmakers in a tizzy. What could happen? As politicians and bureaucrats tell it, another recession is likely, and public safety will be jeopardised. In case you weren't picking up on those subtleties, they describe it as the country falling off a fiscal cliff. The sky will fall. OK, no one has actually said that, but that is the tone they are using.

A normal person might think, OK, if it is going to be that bad, do something about it. That isn't what any of the politicians are really talking about though. Right now, it is all about who is to blame for it. Don't be shocked, but Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama and he is blaming Republicans.

The president says we don't have to cut spending if you raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. That's his only play; he won't give Congress any other options in hopes of forcing their hand. The Republicans in Congress say higher taxes will hurt "job creators" and they won't do it.

As far as populist politics go, it isn't a bad message for the president to be sending on every campaign stop and it's a perfect fit for the narrative he is trying to paint about his opponent, Mitt Romney "the out of touch rich guy who only cares about his NASCAR team owner friends".

The bottom line, on paper and on TV it seems like a perfect political message. But this is not just about politics. This is policy. Unless the two sides do something, $100 billion will be cut from the budget next year. That means about $50 billion comes out of the Defence Department, another 50 from almost every government program.

What will that look like? I can't tell you, because the White House is refusing to say just how its agencies would find the money. Politically, being vague creates a broader panic, and that could increase political pressure. It doesn't take into account how the people who count on these programs feel knowing the money or services they count on could just disappear next year. What would they do then? That isn't being discussed in this town, but everyone who counts on voters to keep their jobs can tell you how it would hurt the defence industry. Clearly, they have better public relations firms.

There is a broader story that isn't being talked about yet in all the panic-filled predictions of economic catastrophe. What these cuts would actually do when it comes to reducing the deficit? The likely outcome is not all that much. The federal government ran a budget deficit of 1.3 trillion dollars in the last fiscal year.

This sequestration talk is about cutting less than that over 10 years. I'm a journalist and therefore you probably realize I'm just not good at math. Still, I know that this talk about cracking down on the deficit could be just that, talk. I just checked and the federal debt now stands at $15,873,767,378,850.16. Take away $100 billion and it doesn't change it all that much.

Deficit hawks would likely tell you this is a start. The question I think we should be asking is if this is the beginning of austerity and politicians promise it will hurt everyone -- what does the end look like?

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