Sequester’s symbols and pain

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A couple of weeks ago I asked is sequester affecting you? The consensus across the country then, just a week into the broad, across-the-board federal budget cuts, was “no.”

Things have changed.

Just like the indiscriminate cuts themselves, the effects of sequester are being felt in myriad ways.

We have the inconsequential, such as the grounding of military aircraft flyovers at sporting events.

We have the life-threatening, such as the refusal of some cancer clinics to treat Medicare patients. The Washington Post reports that the low-cost treatment centers cited sequester budget cuts as the main reason for sending the ill to more expensive facilities.

And we have the symbolic. President Barack Obama announced that he will return 5 percent of his $400,000 White House salary to the U.S. Treasury in solidarity with the millions of federal workers who have been or soon will be furloughed because of sequester cuts of that same percentage to federal agency budgets. Obama will write his first monthly $1,667 pay-back check, retroactive to March when the sequester kicked in, shortly.

Symbolic political paybacks

Congress, like the president, is exempt from sequester. How convenient.

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, however, also is taking a voluntary pay cut. He’s also begun furloughing staff to reduce his office budget in the wake of the sequester.

But wait, there’s more.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his deputy, Ashton Carter, reportedly will return a portion of their salaries. They each plan to give back an amount equivalent to the number of furlough days for civilian defense employees.

I’m waiting to hear from any Republican representatives or senators about giving back any of their income.

Sequester slowly being felt

Yes, such moves by politicians don’t really make a difference. But Washington, D.C., is the center of political Kabuki theater, so symbolic moves are important.

Just look at the hundreds of bills introduced every congressional session simply for show. They have no chance whatsoever of passing, but the lawmakers go through the motions to show their constituents and the media that they care about something or other.

So who on Capitol Hill cares that:

  • The Aerospace Testing Alliance in Tullahoma, Tenn., will cut 128 of 1,809 civilian jobs at Arnold Air Force Base.
  • The Salt Lake Community Action Program in Murray, Utah, closed its food pantry. It is one of five locations that serve more than 1,000 people every month.
  • The Iowa Early Intervention education program expects to lose 11 teaching positions and the Sioux City Community School Board is looking at the potential elimination of 30 staff positions.
  • Canceled government trade shows and curtailed travel have cost the U.S. travel and tourism industries and the communities that depend on visitors millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Those are only four of 100 sequester effects detailed recently by The Huffington Post.

And there are many more than 100 examples of how sequester is hitting, and hurting, a variety of Americans.

Ignoring realities

Yet lawmakers — particularly Republicans — hunker down in their partisan trenches.

The GOP is proclaiming victory, noting that after a month of sequestration the country is still running and by the end of the fiscal year, $85 billion will be slashed from the federal ledger.

Will these members of Congress continue to flash budget-cutting victory signs as many of the people who sent them to Washington face tough personal finance decisions in the wake of sequester’s trickle-down effects?

Will all members of Congress, many of whom are wealthy and have no direct, personal need of many of the programs threatened under sequestration, look beyond their Capitol Hill offices to see what’s really happening in their districts?

What Congress should do is its job. The House and Senate need to come up with a federal budget that includes (gasp!) some budget cuts, but in a more targeted fashion, and (heavens!) some revenue, aka taxes, to keep crucial federal programs in place.

And they need to do so before sequester leads to a messy death by a thousand cuts to services upon which we all rely.


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Veteran contributing editor Kay Bell is the author of the book “The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes” and a co-author of the e-book “Future Millionaires’ Guidebook.”