There's no shortage of pundits, left and right, who cite the $85 billion sequester as evidence that Washington just doesn't work. And, at first blush, the facts appear to be on their side: making across-the-board cuts that threaten obviously necessary air traffic controllers and meat inspectors while simply shaving wasteful farm subsidies does seem to define a lack of political leadership. As circumstances evolve, however, the surprising lack of dire consequences from the sequester, its long-term benefits, and the speed at which the political system appears to be undoing the negative consequences seems to vindicate the approach of making across the board cuts. Against all predictions, in fact, the sequester seems to be working pretty well.
Contrary to dire warnings from some on the left, the miniscule across the board cuts that have resulted from the sequester so far are hardly catastrophic. It has taken three months, in fact, for a single consequence -- the air traffic controller furloughs -- to make front page news. Many of the more sympathetic programs (Head Start for example) that have faced cuts are, at best, ineffective and had plenty of fat to cut. And there's plenty of fat almost everywhere in the government. While it's obviously ideal to have skilled political leaders cut this fat surgically, nearly every program or policy has its a constituency that will fight hard to maintain it. Indeed, the most wasteful programs are often likely to have the most ardent and organized defenders since they have no alternative to government largess.
And the sequester is working as it should in stabilizing the nation's fiscal situation. As the American Enterprise Institute's John Makin has shown in an excellent new paper, the sequestration has helped to put the nation's fiscal course on a sustainable (if hardly enviable) path. While the future isn't rosy without further reform, the best places to restructure government now are in the longer-term and far bigger entitlement programs rather than the domestic discretionary budget that the sequester has hit. And the sequester takes a bigger bite out of spending than just about any politically viable combination of surgical cuts would do.
Insofar as the sequester has had serious consequences -- the airline delays of the last week are exhibit A in this regard -- the political system has responded with alacrity in undoing them. Unless Congress stumbles, full rosters of air traffic controllers should be back to work by next week. Although it's obvious that Congress should have acted much earlier and probable that the Obama administration could have done things differently, a week of annoying airline slowdowns is not too high a price to pay for something that right-sizes government. In fact, cutting across the board and then looking for pain points makes a lot of sense. Every agency and its supporters are going to claim that their own programs are vital, after all, and muster experts to make the same case. Only experimenting in the real world with actual cuts will show what's actually fat and what's not.
The sequester, of course, isn't ideal. There are almost certainly better ways to cut. Some cuts that haven't had any short-term consequences may do harm eventually. But, messy as it is, the sequester seems to be working.