Commentary

Worst first

Here’s why government spending cuts never seem to happen

Friday morning the 2.2-percent federal sequester, or the fiscal cliff, or automatic spending cuts or Armageddon— take your pick—kicked in.

Also Friday morning the stories started about how many senior citizen programs, or teachers, or military personnel, or air traffic controllers would be let go if the spending cuts weren’t restored immediately.

Did you ever wonder, though, why it never seems to be, oh, the overlapping federal programs that get cut, like the 44 for job training, the 56 on financial literacy, 82 on teacher quality and so on, that when these things come around it’s always grandma’s lunch that has to go?

(Those stats are from a 2011 study by the General Accounting Office, not some political group. The GAO said potential savings could be $100 to $200 billion annually.)

The brilliant Charlie Peters of the Washington Monthly e xplained it in a 1976 column, in which he coined the phrase “firemen first.”

Peters noticed that when reformers tried to reduce big city budgets, the first job threats were always to firemen or police, never the deputy second assistant for quality assurance accountability. There would be a public outcry and the spending cuts would never get made.

“Firemen first” usually meant the bureaucracy would find the most outrageous example of a cut and publicize it to the hilt. In 1981 the Reagan Administration tried to reduce the Interior Department’s budget. The department immediately said it might have to close the Washington Monument, not something on the Nebraska prairie.

By the way, the military does it too. Cut deskbound second lieutenants? No, just leave the impression we’ll have to replace combat helmets with baseball caps.

Of course, by law, the sequester cuts have to be across the board. You’re not supposed to be able to pick and choose. Laws can be changed, can’t they? But where spending is concerned they only seem ever to be changed one way.

What’s particularly galling is that since the first of the year, millions of Americans have seen their take-home pay go down by two percent. And we seem to be making it. Even if it means having chicken instead of steak.

But where federal government spending is concerned, chicken never seems to be an option. It’s aways pay for steak or granny starves. And it’s our fault.


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2013-03-07 digital edition



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