Don't use an ax to cut federal budget

With the presidential election and their own campaigns commanding the attention of most members of Congress, it’s good news that some are working on avoiding the crippling automatic budget cuts set to occur with the new year if they don’t act.

Some candidates are reminding voters that sequestration will kick in on Dec. 31 since Congress missed last year’s deadline to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget. Of course, references to the looming spending cuts are typically accompanied by accusations that it’s the other party’s fault that the country is in such a pickle.

Actually, this is one issue where bipartisanship was evident. Democrats and Republicans pooled enough votes to pass the 2011 Budget Control Act. It set into motion the current countdown toward across-the-board spending cuts as the incentive to get Congress to intervene before the meat cleaver strikes.

The incentive seems to be working, though one wishes it were with more urgency. Senate leaders are reported to be nearing agreement on a plan that would reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years, mostly by overhauling the tax code, but also including savings in Medicare and Social Security as well as cuts to other federal programs.

It’s a given that nothing will be approved before the presidential election. That outcome and the congressional elections will determine which side has the clout to get more of what it wants out of the deal. If the Republicans retain their hold on the House, any idea that can be labeled a tax increase is likely doomed.

Without a deal, programs dear to both Democratic and Republican constituencies will suffer. Hawkish Republicans have been blaming Democrats for the automatic cuts, which could rip $7 billion from the Army and $4 billion from the Navy next year. But they need to admit it took both parties to enact sequestration.

Under the draconian terms of that legislation, military and most domestic programs would see their budgets cut severely. Social Security wouldn’t be hit, but other social welfare programs would see as much as a 10 percent reduction in funding. A 2 percent cut in Medicare would mean $5.8 billion less in payments to hospitals next year.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter to Congress reminding it that the automatic spending cuts will have a devastating impact on America’s cities if they occur, decreasing workforce earnings by $109 billion and costing more than two million jobs in the first year. That hardly makes sense in a country trying to create jobs to boost the economy.

The mayors further contended that more, not less, spending needs to occur to relieve congestion, make American ports more competitive, improve education, promote science and technology, seek energy independence, and address climate change.

They’re right. Good investments will make the nation stronger. But strength also requires a significant and continual reduction of the country’s massive deficit. Politics must be put aside to implement a reasonable, balanced approach to deficit reduction that won’t make the country weaker by cutting muscle along with the fat.