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Diane W. Mufson: Sequester may have a small silver lining

May. 01, 2013 @ 12:24 AM

Until this past year, the word "sequester" was unfamiliar to most Americans. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term first used in the 14th century means "to set apart" or "seclude or withdraw."

Whatever its intention, the meaning that most Americans have of "sequester" is "to arbitrarily cut certain things out of our nation's budget because Congress can't get its act together."

But, perhaps the sequester (the word is meant as a verb, but has become a noun) may have a small silver lining. Because much of the American public is displeased with Congress's method of handling our nation's massive deficit, it may be forced to find more realistic ways to deal with it.

Case in point, the recent air traffic delays due to the arbitrary furloughs of airport traffic controllers showed Congress that there is no easy place to cut the budget. As I was traveling by air on the first day of the air traffic controller staff reduction, I had a close-up view of the mess that occurred.

The American public was upset, and it quickly became clear that this was a budget reduction that was backfiring. So Congress rapidly passed an exemption from the sequester for the air traffic controllers and then many senators and representatives raced to the airport to catch planes home for their one-week break.

Our politicians, however pig-headed they may be, know that Americans are fed up with government by crisis. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently told the Wall Street Journal, "Even we are tired ... of lurching from one cliff to another." So, it is possible that a majority of (certainly not all) Congress understands that it is time for long-term and rational choices to replace Band-Aid fixes.

The sequester also offers an opportunity for "housecleaning." It reminds me of clearing out our basement when we moved three years ago. Useless items exist because it is often easier to leave them be rather than discard them. The same can be said about government programs. Once they are in place, inertia sets in and programs remain indefinitely.

David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker's column in the New York Times noted that "A group of five former deputy defense secretaries -- essentially the Pentagon's chief operating officers -- called for a 'bottom up' review that reassess the need for each major program and the weapons system, saying this was an opportunity to accomplish cuts that have long been delayed, after a decade in which the U.S. national security budget has nearly doubled."

The government cutbacks also concern education. According to the Washington Post's state-by-state evaluation of how the sequester would affect public education, West Virginia is likely to lose $8.5 million in primary/secondary education funding, including $3.6 million for children with disabilities.

The sequester affects not only the nation's defense system, airport safety and education, but health, border security, immigration and other basic services.

As hard as the government may try to curb expenses, some, such as those caused by the horrible Boston Marathon attack, cannot be planned for nor denied.

Economists say the sequester impinges on only a small percentage of Americans so far, but more will be affected in the future. Meanwhile, Congress acts only in crises.

Perhaps the sequester will eventually lead to some positive action. The small silver lining may be that some government programs will be found redundant and others, such as air traffic controllers, will be identified as vital. This may lead Congress to try rational thinking or compromise in fixing the current half-baked sequestration plan.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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