It seems that the supercommittee (the US Congress Joint Select Committee on Defict Reduction) has failed to agree on $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. In lieu of this “failure,” automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will kick in. These cuts will be across the board, and will not result from the committee’s picking of winners and losers in the federal budget.
In the context about discussions of intergenerational justice earlier this year, Michael Gerson said that such across-the-board cuts are “really the lazy abdication of governing.” And with respect to the outcome of the supercommittee process, Gerson is laying the lion’s share of blame for this failure to govern with President Obama: “It is the executive, not the legislature, that gives the budget process energy and direction. The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.”
But I want to speak out in favor of across-the-board cuts, at least provisionally. I do not think they necessarily represent a failure to govern, or the “lazy abdication of governing.” It’s true as Gerson says that “To govern is to choose. And some choices are more justified than others.” In the case where there is no clear agreement about spending priorities, or even the basic views of the purpose of government, choosing to keep spending priorities as they currently exist might just be the most feasible political move. If everyone agrees that there needs to be cuts, but no one wants their pet programs cut, then it seems reasonable to, as Gerson puts it, “let everyone bear an equal burden.”
If we were to try to weigh the cuts and divide them proportionally between various areas of government spending, it seems to me that we’d need to come to grips with the various responsibilities of government: primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Things that are more central to the federal government’s purpose should be cut relatively less than those things that are more peripheral. That’s the view that appears in the Acton Institute’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” for instance.
But one thing that’s clear about today’s political climate is that there is very little consensus on what the central functions of government are. And in the absence of consensus, maintaining current spending priorities might be the best we can hope for.