The sequester charade has gone on two years too long. Americans are sick of it. They want elected leaders to take action now to avoid ham-handed, across-the-board spending cuts on March 1.
Extreme partisanship, incompetence and kick-the-can politics have brought Congress and the nation to this point. Both parties, to varying degrees, share the blame.
Both parties agreed to the sequester as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. It was intended as an incentive for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to come to a deal to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit over 10 years. Had this so-called supercommittee agreed on a plan that Congress passed in late 2011, then the sequester could have been averted.
Instead, the nation was allowed to edge closer to the "fiscal cliff" of Dec. 31, which was only avoided by a late deal that pushed the sequester to March 1.
Now the specter of automatic spending cuts is before us -- $85 billion this year and $1.2 trillion by 2021. They will fall heaviest on defense spending, domestic discretionary spending and Medicare, and they will be across the board, with no consideration of whether the cuts actually save money in the long run.
Cuts to defense spending, for instance, would cause the government to break contracts for the purchase of military hardware and maintenance. That forces the government to pay a penalty, which in some cases is equal to the cost of purchasing the equipment.
To be sure, the world won't end if nothing happens by March 1. But don't believe the smug naysayers who say the sequester has been overblown. As the weeks roll on past March 1, the impacts of cuts could be significant, particularly in California.
Some groups are estimating that 225,000 jobs could be lost in the state, largely because of cuts to defense contractors. While that estimate might be on the high side, there is little doubt the sequester would jeopardize the fragile economic recovery in California and other states. Americans will feel the impact through reduced food safety inspections, reduced meals on wheels for the elderly, reduced preschool for poor families, closures to national parks campgrounds and other cuts to services.
And it all can be avoided relatively easily. Republicans must budge from their position that the cuts should fall almost exclusively to domestic spending, with no tax increases or impacts to defense spending and oil subsidies. Democrats have to give on their protection of certain domestic programs, particularly those favored by their friends in public sector labor unions. President Barack Obama has to be more specific about what kind of deal he would favor. The public is tiring of his reflexive behavior of "not wanting to negotiate in public."
Four people in a room could end this farce this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi need to sit down and negotiate a compromise. Once they strike a deal, they must commit to confronting their respective caucuses and selling them on the package. The president should pressure both sides -- including congressional leaders of his party -- to make it happen. Let's put an end to this charade.