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The great divide in Washington continues

Date published: 3/29/2013

CONGRESS AVOIDED a government shutdown by passing a continuing resolution, funding the feds until the end of September. But that's just like tossing cookies to a bear: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans in Washington will come roaring back as soon as the cookies give out next fall.

Because the two sides haven't agreed on how to handle the massive debt load burdening the nation, sequestration, a manufactured crisis requiring an $85 billion cut in spending over 10 years, is now in effect. Almost daily, the public hears horror stories about its effects.

The cutbacks will "bite medical research," one headline trumpeted, by snatching $1.6 billion of NIH's $30 billion budget. And this at just the time scientists are on the cusp of major discoveries about cancer and Alzheimer's. Sequestration is forcing the FAA to close 150 airport control towers, putting the flying public at risk! What's more, funding for mental health care for 370,000 Americans will evaporate, and parks will close.

Politicians of all stripes typically try to get the public's attention by making cutbacks as visible as possible: Remember when then-Gov. Kaine closed interstate rest areas in Virginia? The irony is that sequestration merely slows the rate of overspending: Washington will still spend more than it is bringing in--a disaster every family or private business manager strains to avoid. In all, the cuts total only 2.4 percent of the federal budget over 10 years.

Nevertheless, sequestration is bad policy, much like taking a scythe to a garden: The blows will strike down fruitful vines along with the weeds. And choosing visible cuts is even worse policy: Unlike the FAA, a business needing to cut back on spending would likely start with employee travel, consulting fees, and perks rather than ending a "product" (control towers) that provided a boon for customers.

Pew Research finds that 76 percent of Americans believe a mix of spending cuts and tax increases will be needed to turn U.S. finances around. Over half lean toward cutting spending. Meanwhile, a recent Rasmussen poll finds that only 12 percent of Americans have felt any pain from sequestration. Gloom and doom from Washington isn't playing well in Peoria.

There are other answers to the nation's economic woes, like reforming entitlements and overhauling the tax code to scrap deductions and loopholes that hurt the country's finances. President Obama's deficit reduction committee identified a stunning $1.1 trillion per year of these "tax expenditures."

Smart ways exist to defuse the national debt. Sequestration, though not Doomsday, isn't one of them. Washington needs to get to work on a real solution.