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COURANT: Compromise To Avert Sequestration Cuts

February 26, 2013

Unless Congress crafts a bipartisan compromise by Friday, the Budget Control Act of 2011 will sequester — or cancel — $85 billion of spending planned for the rest of this year. The cuts would be mindlessly spread across all federal agencies, regardless of priority or need. Activities affecting all Americans would be cut. Everything from the Navy to Head Start will be partially curtailed on an indiscriminate basis. Waiting times at airports will go up, food safety inspections will be limited, aircraft carrier deployments would be curtailed and pre-school slots would be eliminated.

Sadly, as the trigger date of this mindless dislocation nears, discussions in Washington are focused on which party is to blame, rather than on crafting a solution to avoid this self-inflicted wound. Quite the opposite is happening in Connecticut, where people are concerned about the sequester's cuts.

That was the message I heard from shipyard workers in Groton who stand to lose repair work planned by the Navy later this year. It was the message I heard from nursing home staff at St. Joseph's Living Center in Windham that will lose up to 2 percent on Medicare payments. And it was the same concern conveyed by Head Start directors in Hampton who will have to cut 40 toddlers from their program.

The effect of sequestration is already being felt. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the national economy slowed in the fourth quarter of 2012 due mainly to the slowdown in defense spending and contracting in anticipation of the sequester's impact. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that economic growth this year would be cut by a third if the sequester is allowed. The consequences are clear — and I believe that Congress must act.

The debate over who is to blame is a distraction and a disservice. What Connecticut is looking for — and what Congress must create — is a solution.

The good news is that history provides a road map for a way out. Sequestration for many is a foreign term, but its roots date back to a federal law from 1985, when the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequestration was enacted. Then, as today, the federal government was confronted with a structural deficit, divided control of the Congress and the White House, and terrible gridlock that threatened America's financial solvency.

The regular order of budgets passed through House and Senate committees was not working, and therefore Sens. Warren Rudman, Phil Gramm and Fritz Hollings devised a law that would force the two parties to achieve deficit reduction whether they liked it or not. Their plan set a deficit reduction goal for each year that, if it wasn't achieved, would trigger automatic spending cuts affecting defense and non-defense spending in equal shares.

They believed correctly that the impact of chain saw cuts in all sectors of the federal government would be so politically unacceptable that Republicans and Democrats would negotiate in good faith. As Phil Gramm said in 2011, "It was never the objective of Gramm-Rudman to trigger the sequester; the objective of Gramm-Rudman was to have the threat of the sequester force compromise and action."

Over time, the threat of sequester resulted in hard negotiations and compromises, including the Andrews Air Force Base agreement between President George H.W. Bush and Sen. George Mitchell and the 1996 Balanced Budget between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich. Certainly other major contributors, including the Clinton tax plan of 1993, helped balance the budget. But sequester played a key role in spurring action that got our finances in order.

On Jan. 1, the Congress and the president averted another self-imposed crisis by blocking the fiscal cliff. In doing so, we protected lower tax rates for middle-class Americans and postponed sequestration by two months, postponing its original Jan. 1 trigger. That two-month delay, however, was accomplished with bipartisan negotiations and was built with equal parts new revenue and spending reductions. That small success is the "DaVinci Code" for my colleagues and me to turn off the doomsday device that Gramm-Rudman-Hollings first invented to force deficit reduction.

Only through bipartisan compromise can we reject mindless cuts in favor of a balanced package that reduces the deficit and prioritizes tough choices over self-inflicted economic wounds and repeated, avoidable budget crises.

Joe Courtney represents Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District.

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