That cliff up ahead

Congress goes home with still no action on looming spending cuts.

WASHINGTON - In a city that loves arcane procedures and tortured shorthand that means little to ordinary people, the big word looming over the nation's fiscal malaise is "sequestration."

Born of dysfunction and intransigence, the abstract term refers to the very real threat of deep spending cuts set to hit defense and domestic programs Jan. 2, worrying conservatives and liberals alike. The cuts and tax hikes also slated to kick in at year's end are known together as "the fiscal cliff," and combined they would be devastating to the military and social services and could plunge the nation into another recession, according to analysts.

Mayor Nutter: "None of us could run our cities and get away with" D.C.'s antics.

Among those watching the slow-motion train wreck as Congress adjourned without a solution last week were mayors such as Philadelphia's Michael Nutter, one of many who would have to deal with fallout from the cuts.

"None of us could run our cities and get away with the kind of stuff that goes on in this town," Nutter said Thursday in Washington, exasperated that no one has a solution to a problem leaders in Congress and the White House all say they want to fix. "We have things that need to get done."

Nutter, joined by five other big-city Democratic mayors, blasted lawmakers for the $109 billion in looming, automatic cuts they said would hurt schools, social services, and private investment.

Military leaders have issued similar warnings about the impact on national defense. (The cuts would be split between defense and domestic causes.)

Even those who support a smaller government worry about the reductions, which won't target specific inefficiencies, but instead will indiscriminately hack away at programs popular and unpopular alike.

In Philadelphia, the cuts could force the city to slash 400 slots from Head Start, the early-childhood education program, Nutter said, and remove lead from 100 fewer homes. Colleges and medical centers could also suffer, the mayor warned. Businesses would have more reasons to hesitate before investing.

"Trillions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines right now," Nutter said. "Part of that is the level of dysfunction and uncertainty created by a process that virtually no one can understand, a word that virtually no one can even pronounce, and worse, doesn't know what it means."

In a twist only Washington could dream up, sequestration, sometimes called "the sequester," stems from a deal supported by President Obama and solid majorities of both parties, and that all now hope to undo.

It was approved as part of the 2011 deal to increase the federal "debt ceiling."

The plan called for deficit reduction, hashed out by a bipartisan 12-member "supercommittee" from both chambers. Harsh penalties were supposed to encourage a compromise: $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and domestic programs over 10 years. The consequences were meant to be so fearsome to each party that even this defiantly unproductive Congress would be forced to come up with a compromise.

But it seems our leaders underestimated even their own ability to do nothing in the face of calamity.

The supercommittee failed to reach agreement, triggering the cuts - and a scramble to stop a penalty that was never supposed to happen.

To former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it looks like the scene in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, "where the sheriff holds a gun to his own head, and warns the crowd not to make him shoot."

"This is no way to run a government," Gates said.

"My hope is that following the presidential election, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromise necessary to put this country back in order," he added last week at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Republicans, who disavowed the sequester almost as soon as they helped pass it, have proposed sparing defense spending by making deeper reductions in social programs. Democrats, including the White House, say any fix should include increased taxes on high incomes.

House Democrats on Friday used an awkward bit of theater to call on Congress to stay and work on this issue and others, standing on the Capitol steps chanting "Work, work, work!" and clapping out of rhythm.

But Congress still went home, leaving lawmakers a narrow window between Nov. 6 and New Year's to avert the sequester.

There is talk privately of doing what Congress does best: voting to delay the cuts and duck the consequences that were supposed to prompt action in the first place.

That may have voters spitting words that are much more familiar, and more colorful, than sequestration.


Contact Jonathan Tamari at or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.