The US Congress broke out its smoke and mirrors kit again last week, with the House passing an “emergency” spending bill to “prevent a government shutdown,” and the Senate expected to follow this week. Once that’s done, the kit’s tools will remain in action through Election Day as both major parties tout their diligent work to prevent “sequestration” — a package of mandatory “cuts” to the federal budget scheduled to kick in if politicians can’t come to an agreement otherwise by January 2nd.
This perennial kabuki is interesting not so much for the acting — let’s face it, most American politicians phone their performances in these days — as for the props. The US government’s budget process is a prime example of what Wendy McElroy refers to as the “democratization of reality.”
“‘Facts,’” writes McElroy (“The War on Words and Facts,” Laissez Faire Books, September 15), “are manufactured by those who control information and, then, they are broadcast widely to unquestioning people who believe them because the ‘facts’ spew from authorities or the media.”
Let’s look at some of the “facts” involved in the US government’s budget jiggery-pokery.
The current “emergency spending bill” nonsense is just that — nonsense. No “government shutdown” is at stake. In Washington, a “government shutdown” means that certain “non-essential government services” are temporarily stopped. The government employees who get laid off for a day or a week in order to heighten audience suspension of disbelief get paid for that time off when they return (as they inevitably shall). And if a “government service” is not, in fact, “essential,” then why is government providing that “service” in the first place, and how does the prospect that it might cease to do so become an “emergency?”
As far as “sequestration” is concerned, the “cuts” it implies are, for the most part, not really “cuts” at all, let alone cuts of “draconian” scale, or cuts that will “hollow out” Leviathan, as the nation’s politician-actors assure us.
Take, for example, the prospective “sequestration” “cuts” to the US Department of Defense. As the Federal Times‘s John T. Bennett notes (“Sequestration might be manageable, experts say,” September 18), “The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that even if the sequestration cuts stick, the annual Pentagon budget would dip below $500 billion [to approximately 2006 levels] for just one year, return to current levels by 2017 and approach $600 billion by 2020.”
And if “sequestration” doesn’t happen? The debate over the US “defense” budget is between the Obama administration’s proposal to grow “defense” spending by 10% between 2013 and 2018 (that’s the “draconian cuts — hollowing out the military!” end of the spectrum) and Republicans’ insistence on 18% growth over the same period.
To top that steaming pile of legerdemain off, it’s likely that the aforementioned “defense” spending won’t include the costs of already ongoing, or prospective, US foreign military adventures. Those have generally been funded — at least during the post-9/11 “war on terror” period — through “emergency supplemental” bills that don’t appear in budget forecasts.
It really is just theater, folks. I can’t think of a single sitting federal politician who actually proposes to cut the size or cost of the federal government.
US Representative and GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s vaunted “austerity” proposal doesn’t even theoretically balance the budget for decades and grows government over that whole period, hoping for tax revenues to eventually catch up from the “stimulus” of top rate cuts.
Even the alleged “fringe gadflies” who talk a good line on the subject (yes, I’m referring to Ron Paul) are just giving lip service to “fiscal conservatism” packing budget bills with pork for their districts before casting symbolic “no” votes that they know won’t have any effect.
There is no “reform” path that gets us from “big government” to “small government.” Like sharks, states never stop growing. The only way to get to “smaller government” is for the existing state to die. And the only way to keep “smaller government” is to prevent that dead state’s replacement by another state.