Some happy New Year. Instead of teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff, America now teeters on the edges of three.
The debt cliff, when America runs out of borrowing authority and risks defaulting on its obligations, kicks in sometime in late February.
The sequestration cliff, in which agencies take a combined $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts to their budgets over the next 10 years, looms March 1 unless a long-term deficit-cutting deal is reached.
And the budget cliff — when authority to spend runs out because Congress failed to pass a federal budget for fiscal 2013 — expires March 27.
The tax deal Congress passed Jan. 1 delayed sequestration by two months, buying Congress and the White House time to negotiate further budget cuts. But if past is prologue, we can expect they’ll still be bickering when the sun rises Feb. 28.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Congress has several options. Lawmakers can accept sequestration as a mindless capitulation to their ineptitude. Or they can adapt it to provide federal executives enough flexibility and authority to make reasoned choices about what to cut and what to protect instead of cutting everything equally. Or they can strike a worthy, honest compromise that puts the best interests of the nation ahead of party ideology.
The first option would amount to an admission of failure. The second is an abdication of constitutional responsibility. So the third is the only viable choice. It’s what people sent them to Washington to do in the first place.
Most Americans agree that, given our unsustainable level of deficit spending, substantial cuts are needed. What to cut, and how to do it wisely, are the problems.
One place to start is eliminating program duplication. The Government Accountability Office has identified dozens of areas where programs overlap, from food safety and health research to economic development and environmental protection. Duplicated effort wastes tens of billions of dollars a year, GAO has said.
And while the executive branch is aware of this problem, there is little it can do under present law. A bill introduced last year by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., aimed to solve that by allowing the president to propose agency reorganizations that result in more efficient government. The measure would require an up-or-down vote by Congress without amendments within 90 days of the president’s proposal.
Congress may be loath to cede such authority to the administration, but without doing so, Congress’ mish-mash committee structure is unlikely to tackle such reforms, because every program has a sponsor. If the White House can offer a money-saving improvement to a program or office, and demonstrate that efficiency to lawmakers, it ought to be allowed to do so.
For too long, Congress has been the primary cause of runaway and wasteful spending, whether by starting and stopping and restarting programs or by launching new programs that duplicate existing efforts. Small steps like this one would incentivize government executives and managers to seek efficiency, protect Congress’ rights and responsibilities to provide oversight, and help lawmakers begin to put effective governance before politics.