Sequester not the answer

On February 28, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Like most people in America, I hope that the federal government does not do something painful and senseless this Friday by allowing $85 million in arbitrary budget cuts (“the sequester”). It would cut education funding for children with disabilities, eliminate vital Head Start programs for disadvantaged children, curtail meat inspections, slash hazardous waste cleanup funds, compromise our national air defense, eliminate summer jobs programs for teens, make us more vulnerable to public health threats, snarl national air travel, slash money for substance abuse treatment (which is also an anti-crime program), cut money to help victims of domestic violence, eliminate meals for seniors, and leave tens of thousands of children without vaccinations.

In most cases these are not even real savings. These are classic cases where an ounce of prevention today is more cost effective than a pound of cure tomorrow. On top of that, just about every economist in America agrees it would slow economic growth during what is still a fragile recovery.

Basically, it’s a bad deal for everyone. To a degree, that’s why President Obama and the U.S. Congress agreed to the sequester in the first place. The idea was that the sequester would be so objectionable that it would force both parties to compromise on a larger deficit reduction package. But as I write this, it looks increasingly likely that a sequester will happen, and Congress either needs to strike a deal or eliminate it. Both sides want deficit reduction and both sides know the sequester is the absolute wrong way to do it. It cannot be allowed to take effect.

The President has issued a detailed, alternative deficit reduction plan that involves making Medicare more efficient and cost effective, relatively small cuts in discretionary defense and domestic spending, reform of federal retirement programs, elimination of certain agricultural subsidies, reducing oil subsidies, and closing federal tax loopholes for the wealthy.

You’d think those would be generally acceptable terms. The majority of Americans support each and every one of those ideas. However, Congressional Republicans seem willing to make anyone and everyone else suffer in the name of protecting tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporate subsidies, especially to the oil industry.

Meanwhile, they’re using the budget as an excuse to shoehorn two of their worst ideas into the deal: The elimination of Medicare as we know it and an overhaul of the tax code to favor the wealthy.

President Obama’s plan is to make common sense cost adjustments to Medicare so that it is preserved for you, me, our children, and everyone who currently is or hopes to be a senior citizen. Good management can make that happen.

Congressional Republicans instead keep pushing to mutilate the program, turning it into a voucher program that will leave our nation’s seniors in danger of not being able to afford treatment of serious medical conditions. Essentially, it’s a raw deal for anyone 55 and under, and the viability of the program also becomes an issue for anyone currently 55 and over. It’s a tremendously bad idea, but Republicans keep trying to gut Medicare rather than agree to sensible reforms.

The Republican desire to overhaul the tax code in order to tip the scales even more in favor of the wealthy is equally unjust. In the latest national election, voters rejected this key point of the Republican platform. Moreover, this has nothing to do with deficit reduction. In fact, it would likely increase the federal deficit.  It’s an excuse to skirt the debate over closing loopholes and ending subsidies. They don’t want to discuss the plans that could save us money here and now because they prefer their pet idea.

We know blind, across-the-board cuts are exactly the wrong way to balance a budget. I’ve said it more than once:  You cannot cut your way to success.   In Somerville, we know this firsthand.  We used to have some of these same problems. When I took office, one of the first things I did was ask Harvard Kennedy School professor Linda J. Bilmes to help us come up with a better annual budget process to make city government more effective and responsive for our residents. As a result, we now use an “evidence-based budget;” our department managers identify their central missions and goals, and resources are organized to achieve those goals, measuring their success along the way.

Our success with this budgeting system is evident: dozens of new and rebuilt parks and playgrounds, vastly improved constituent services, a dramatic increase in the number of streets we repave every year, and schools that have consistently improved while preserving no fees for early childhood education, music programs and high schools sports…well, that didn’t happen by accident. We now give the taxpayers more bang for their buck. In fact, we spend less per capita than any other city in Massachusetts with a population of 3,000 or more.

I know from personal experience that President Obama has tried to do something similar in Washington. He and his staff have asked mayors like me what has worked at the local level and tried to replicate those best practices. However, as Prof. Bilmes noted in an excellent piece in The Boston Globe last week, Congress tends to ignore that work and conduct business as usual when it comes to the budget. And this is not a party line issue. Both parties have been resistant to needed changes in how we put together the federal budget.  Professor Bilmes suggests budgeting for two years at a time instead of one, better transparency of costs to cut down on overhead expenses, and a simplified budgeting process. All of that should be done.

If you really want deficit reduction, if you really want a better run federal government, then follow the President’s lead and improve the way we put together the federal budget. That’s how to deliver better, more cost-effective government. The sequester does nothing but move our nation backward. And perhaps the one thing we can all agree on is that the direction we need to be moving is forward.


9 Responses to “Sequester not the answer”

  1. A. Moore says:

    This is a D&R problem that was forseeable even by the average citizen. They have had years to get their act together. As usual they use scare tatics to intimidate us. We have heard this same story about what they will cut each and every time they did not do their job and lived within their means. Same old story. Cuts should have made made years ago to non important programs and each of these elected officials should be learning how to cut out the waste. Instead of a $60000 suv try driving a affordable vehicle. Years ago I bought a state vehicle at an auction and the car had nothing in it, not even a radio. Try that down the line in their spending and there will probably be money left over instead of needing more. Take pay cuts like the rest of us have been. Learn to improve your story on what is going to be cut, we have heard this all before. Save it and do the right thing. The debt clocking is ticking. Do something about it NOW!

  2. mememe says:

    “$85 million in arbitrary budget cuts”. They are not arbitrary and were dictated though the political process, led (for once) by Obama. Also its 85 billion not million

    ” It would cut education funding for children with disabilities…” Blah blah blah. Only politicians would see $44 billion (rest over 10 years) and say. You know what, this should be taken from the education budget. Mean while the military builds $1.5 trillion planes that dont work. This cut is less then 1.5% of the federal budget (which only funds 10% of education, rest is state and local). Claiming its going to hurt the education of kids with disabilities is smoke in mirrors, meant as a scare tactic. Google ‘fireman first’.

    ” just about every economist in America agrees ” This is false. If you read anyone other then Mr. Krugman you would know.

    “that’s why President Obama and the U.S. Congress agreed to the sequester in the first place” Oh, I thought it was arbitrary… “We know blind, across-the-board cuts are exactly the wrong way to balance a budget” oh look, now its blind cuts…

    ” In fact, we spend less per capita than any other city in Massachusetts with a population of 3,000 or more.” This is not true, look at the cherry sheets.

    “If you really want deficit reduction, if you really want a better run federal government, then follow the President’s lead and improve the way we put together the federal budget. That’s how to deliver better, more cost-effective government.” look at the 5 years of Obama. Deficit up, less transparency, He has put forth one budget in five years, which is illegal.
    This article is so full of inconsistency and incorrect facts. The Somerville news should either supply some independent fact checking, or stop giving him space every time he wants to spout off.

  3. jbkemble says:

    Prof. Bilmes was my professor 5 years ago. She is amazing, and the whole government would work a lot better if everyone took her cost accounting class!

  4. Villenous says:

    Yeah mememe, kids, the elderly, people with disabilities – blah blah blah. Not that this matters, but maybe not everyone thinks the purpose of the government is to throw innocent people under bus.

    BTW, Obama puts forth a budget every year (you can even go to the OMB website and look them up). Congress has been too dysfunctional to pass them.

  5. Mark Alston-Follansbee says:

    Thank you Mayor. This is potentially a disaster for the Somerville Homeless Coalition; we are hearing 5 to 10% cuts from HUD. HUD provides half of our budget and a cut that size is not sustainable for a small agency like ours. They want to cut our grants at the same time the need continues to increase. My biggest frustration is we know how to deal with hunger and homelessness in our community but we lack the resources to do it — and it is only the federal government that has enough money to address some of these social problems. The state and our city are already tapped out. Very discouraging.

    Mark Alston-Follansbee
    Somerville Homeless Coalition

  6. A. Moore says:

    Mark Alston-Follansbee, which is why I get so disgusted with some of the programs here when this should be top priority. There is no need for this in this country for anyone to go to bed hungry. We can have festivals in this city, put in fancy brickwork, build bicyle paths, parks but not supply basic human needs. This orginization should never have to beg or want for money. There has been an incease in homelesness in this city and an increase in senior homelesness accross the country. Some things need to come first. And this is one of them. Our wondeful Mr.Kerry just sent 60 million to another country for food, why not here? And all these pols are supposed to be so smart, when are they going to start showing it? Disgusting.

  7. JAR says:

    End the FED.

  8. j connelly says:

    Our nation is going under because as “Villenous” stated; “Congress has been too dysfunctional” Congress is an outright disgrace. There are many homeless familys/children in our country. Which should be the number 1 priority of Congress. Congress priority is taking care of their rich buddies and forgetting everyone else.

  9. Somerbreeze says:

    Congress USED to be able to work both sides of the aisle, compromising on critical matters, to keep government functioning and legislation enacted…

    Now we’re in thrall to deadly gridlock, while the zealots, the clueless and the spineless make a Three Stooges slugfest look majestic…

    “The politician thinks of the next election; the statesman (sic) thinks of the next generation.”

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