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Biggest casualty of sequestration is legitimacy of government

February 26. 2013 6:55PM

Sequestration. How did we get here? The back story on the looming cuts to federal spending set to begin on March 1 is an interesting one. In a rare display of bipartisanship members of the Republican-controlled house, Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House came up with sequestration to force Washington to address its reckless spending habits and failure to pass a budget. The idea behind sequestration is that the pain of the cuts to defense and domestic spending would be so severe that legislators and the White House would have to come to a deal. Wishful thinking.

With just days to go before the deadline kicks in, public efforts to arrive at a deal have been replaced by the familiar partisan blame game that now passes for doing the people's business. Instead of focusing on avoiding the ham-fisted cuts to spending that will affect military deployments, special education funding, the judicial system and public safety, the media is filled with contested accounts of whose idea sequestration was and who will pay the bigger price once the cuts begin.

The impact on federal spending is not insignificant. Over 10 years, the Budget Control Act, from which sequestration comes, requires a $1.2 trillion cut in spending. Annually, that works out to about $109 billion, with $85 billion set to be cut over the course of this year. By now, most are familiar with what this means in the real world. Defense cuts will lead to 800,000 civilian employee furloughs, defense contracts not being renewed, training and readiness programs being cut, and, perhaps most famously, the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier battle group's deployment to the Middle East has been cancelled. Domestically, 70,000 students would no longer have access to Head Start services, 10,000 teachers and aides who serve low-income and special needs students would find their funding cut, the FAA would have to furlough nearly 47,000 employees. Homeland security and Medicare will be cut as well.

In New Hampshire, the cuts will also take a toll. According to the White House, Granite Staters should expect over a million dollar cut to teachers and schools, more than $2.2 million less for children with disabilities, no Head Start for 100 children, the loss of $138,000 in funding for job search assistance that will affect nearly 5,000 people looking for work. The list goes on.

At the end of the day the biggest casualty of sequestration isn't the particular federal programs that are cut, the jobs that are lost or furloughed, or even the impact on unemployment or the growth of our economy. The casualty is the legitimacy of our government in Washington. Support for our institutions of government is dangerously low. According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing while 81 percent disapprove. According to Real Clear Politics, 37.2 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the right direction while 55.5 percent think we are headed in the wrong direction. It is possible that sequestration will serve as one of those critical moments in our national conscience, shocking voters into demanding more of their elected officials. We've seen this before after the attack on Pearl Harbor, during the Vietnam War, and in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. It's also possible that voters will continue to muddle along, allowing for business as usual in Washington where playing the blame game and scoring cheap partisan points passes for legislation and leadership. If that's the case, then we have the government we deserve.

Dr. Wayne F. Lesperance Jr. is a professor of political science at New England College and the director of its Center for Civic Engagement.

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