Setting off a decade of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to defense and domestic program budgets was, by design, a bad idea.
The mechanism known as sequestration was never supposed to be a fiscal strategy. It was supposed to put pressure on Congress and the White House to agree on a deficit reduction plan and avoid hacking away at good programs along with wasteful ones. Unfortunately, the two sides have not made a deal, and the bad idea has become bad policy.
We have seen sequester cuts to social programs like Meals on Wheels and Head Start. There is less federal money for public housing assistance, support for schools with low-income students, food inspection, scientific research grants and environmental protection.
The defense side of the cuts will have a bite of their own. According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the cuts could soon affect shipbuilding programs like those carried out at Bath Iron Works, one of Maine’s largest private employers.
Last March, skeptics questioned how cuts of approximately $100 billion a year — less than 3 percent of annual federal spending — could affect the economy. If BIW loses a shipbuilding contract, they will have an answer to their question. The problem is that you can’t build part of a ship. Either you have enough for the whole thing, or you forget it.
Annual cuts to the defense budget and uncertainty from Congress mean that whole programs could be abandoned if there is not enough funding to see it through. That would have a direct and immediate impact on shipyard workers and their families and cause indirect problems to all the people they do business with, slowing down what is already a sluggish state economy.
“As secretary, I have done everything possible to protect shipbuilding. But … I can’t do it forever,” Mabus said in a speech given last week at the National Defense University in Washington. “It is — and there is really no other way to put this — a dumb way to cut.”
The defense budget should be cut, and there may be shipbuilding programs that are unnecessary for national security reasons. But those should be smart cuts, not dumb ones.
Congress should find a way around the stalemate and agree to cuts that achieve the same deficit-reduction targets without driving budget cuts that don’t make sense. Sequestration is still a bad idea.