MICHAEL GERSON: No way to run a country

February 19, 2013 

"I don't know whether to kill myself or to go bowling," goes the old country song. Washington has apparently decided to do both, permitting a self-destructive sequester while heading off on vacation.

All sides bear responsibility for this turn of events. What President Obama now calls a "really bad idea" was generated by his own economic policy team. What Speaker John Boehner now refers to as a "meat ax" passed the House at his urging with 174 Republican votes. All involved would protest that across-the-board cuts were only intended as the unthinkable alternative to a rational plan approved by the so-called supercommittee.

But no one loses money betting against the success of the federal government on budget issues. American politicians are trying to find the sequester's inner beauty, which brings to mind another country classic: "She's looking better every beer."

Some Democrats see disproportionate defense reductions as a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity. "You are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut," salivates Howard Dean. For others, it is an opportunity to apply blame to Republicans as TSA screening lines lengthen and meat quality inspectors are furloughed.

Democratic proposals to avoid the sequester are consistent with an aggressive blame-shifting strategy. Replacing a measure that currently consists of 100 percent budget cuts with one that includes 50 percent revenue increases would probably secure zero Republican votes in the Senate.

On the Republican side, a few of the libertarian/isolationist persuasion are perfectly content with broad budget cuts that unravel military preparedness. Many more in the GOP are resigned to sequestration as the least bad of the options they have been given.

Republicans comfort themselves that a 5.1 percent reduction in domestic spending is not as dramatic as a government shutdown -- more of a haircut than a scalping. But it is probably not wise to trust in the restraint and sense of historical proportion of the media in covering the resulting dislocations. And not all the pain will be minor.

So Washington has maneuvered itself into a position where doing nothing makes political sense for everyone, at least for the moment. But when all these politically rational decisions are added up, they still amount to an absurd, discrediting way to run a government.

The American political system is not designed for efficiency. But it presupposes deliberation and leadership. The serial abdication of both eventually has an economic and human cost.

Email: michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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