In the days after the gross dereliction of duty known as sequestration took effect earlier this year, supporters crowed that the world had not ended and, thus, the Obama administration’s dire warnings about its effects would end up undermining the president.
Sequestration is a program of automatic, unconsidered budget cuts that are occurring because Congress refused to compromise on a balanced approach to reducing the federal deficit. Supporters of this dysfunctional approach to governing were right, at least to this extent: The world did not end. But that doesn’t mean the consequences aren’t playing out in dangerous ways.
Here is some of what is being threatened because Congress lacked the political courage to do what was right:
• The administration of justice. The terrorism trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abut Ghaith, could be delayed because all public defenders are being required to be furloughed for more than five weeks by the fall. U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan had been considering starting the trial as early as September. He called it “stunning” that Washington’s budget argument was undermining this trial.
That problem is also playing out in Buffalo’s federal courts. Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny has ordered an end to hearing criminal cases on Fridays because of the cuts, which are affecting all components of the federal judiciary, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s Office and the Court Clerk’s Office.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano told The Buffalo News. “Our program is crippled.” Cases will be delayed, she said, creating injustice.
• Air safety. On June 15, 149 air traffic control towers are expected to be shut down. Those closures were first scheduled to occur last week, but the Federal Aviation Administration decided to hold off to give the communities affected time to decide if they would assume the costs of operating towers that allow aircraft to take off and land safely. Really.
• Health care. As we have already observed on this page, sequestration is obstructing cancer research. The National Institutes for Health, which allocates grants for cancer research, faces a $1.6 billion cut this year. That means a $250 million reduction in cancer research this year, affecting centers around the country. Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute is expecting a cut of $6 million. If people don’t die from a lack of air traffic controllers, they will die because of this.
The cuts are also expected to have an impact on the development of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is the city’s best hope in decades for a thriving, high-tech economy – not to mention cutting-edge health care.
This is a rolling disaster and a consequence of elected officials who misread the need to reduce federal spending. Yes, moving deliberately toward a balanced budget is an important task, but we have run up historic deficits in part because of a historic recession. Significantly increased spending – though sometimes wretchedly careless and inefficient – was needed to prevent the recession from deepening into a full-blown depression.
The country does need to back down from that, but wiser heads than those currently occupying Congress could find more thoughtful ways of reducing the deficit than wielding a meat cleaver that threatens criminal justice, air safety and health care. And those examples don’t include the impact on defense spending.
Congress and the president need to overcome the slashing divisiveness that grips Washington and act wisely on behalf of the country. It shouldn’t be too much to expect.