Both the White House and Congress have done a remarkable job of botching the process of shaving 2½ cents off the dollars they will spend this year.
The failure is shared by both sides, despite their obvious and frantic efforts to shift the blame as the sequestration process began Friday.
Consider this week's debate over the sensible idea of giving federal managers the flexibility to allocate cuts in a responsible way. The legislation would have allowed cuts to be prioritized, cutting more from less-needed functions and preserving funds for critical jobs. The total savings of $85 billion this fiscal year would have remained the same, and the flexibility would have extended only through this year.
Without such discretion, across-the-board cutbacks may wind up harming high-priority functions such as air traffic control and food inspections.
Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer rightly noted the absurdity of the Department of Agriculture's statements that will furlough food inspectors. “Funding for travel, seminars and conferences is certainly less of a national priority than the safety and health of consumers,” Fischer said. “Yet, none of those funds appear slated for the chopping block.”
Washington being what it is, calls to allow such managerial flexibility lamentably were quickly shot down. The Senate vote was only 38 “yes” versus 62 “no.” The naysayers cited two main excuses.
>> Excuse No. 1: Some senators said such an approach would hand the Obama administration budget authority that belongs to Congress.
In the first place, the legislation still would have allowed Congress to reject the administration's budget plans through the passage of a resolution of disapproval. More importantly, the opponents' claim would carry more weight if the Senate actually were doing its job and passing a budget.
Instead, the “upper house” of Congress has failed to approve a budget for several years now. The federal government has been operating on autopilot via continuing resolutions. As Fischer, who served eight years in the Nebraska Legislature, noted, “In Nebraska, when we make budget cuts, we go through the budget line by line in legislative committees to identify ineffective, low-priority programs. Here in Washington, we don't even have a budget.”
That approach lets lawmakers dodge accountability for tough budget choices, a self-serving habit that's been on ample display by both Congress and White House during the sequester buildup. Indeed, one political motivation that Democratic senators had for voting against sequester flexibility this week was to shield the Obama administration from responsibility for unpopular budget cuts.
>> Excuse No. 2: Some senators said they feared that the Obama administration would use the managerial flexibility to play political games and punish its Republican critics in Congress.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., offered the most succinct response to that claim: “So what? You're talking penny ante political mischief. Do I really care about this when it comes to saving our nation? No, I don't care about that.”
There's a larger lesson in all of this: When power is shared between the two political parties, as it often is in our system, responsible governance depends on building trust between the two sides.
Democrats today have no trust in congressional Republicans, who lambaste the administration at every turn and whose Senate leader declared his intention to make President Obama a one-term president. Republicans have no trust in a president who remains in constant campaign mode and often uses his public addresses to heap the blame on the GOP.
Defenders of this political trench warfare say it's a responsible defense of philosophical principles and the sign of a vigorous democracy. But as the sequester demonstrates, this glaring absence of trust has rendered the two sides incapable of reaching agreement — not just on the truly difficult issues (a long-term budget solution) but even on easy ones (allowing common-sense flexibility in spending cuts).
The more the president and congressional Republicans seek to shift all blame to the other side, the more they advertise their own failure to lead.