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.


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