In Washington, the only “smart” budget cut is a fake budget cut

Critics of sequestration complain that it is a blunderbuss approach to cutting spending. They argue that “targeted cuts” — which operate line-by-line, program-by-program — are the smart way to rein in the budget without doing harm.

But, as the Washington Post demonstrates, in practice “targeted cuts” frequently prove to be no cuts at all. Instead, they are a method through which legislators can claim to be slashing the budget while continuing to spend at the same levels as before.

Consider the $37.8 billion in “cuts” agreed to in 2011, proclaimed by President Obama as “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” The Post finds that package to be “an epic kind of Washington illusion, stuffed with gimmicks that made the cuts seem far bigger — and the politicians far bolder — than they actually were.”

For example, the Transportation Department took credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been cancelled six months earlier and a $375,000 road project that had been created due to a typo on a road that didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, the Census Department took a $6 billion “cut” for not conducting the 2010 census in 2011. And Congress agreed, in the spirit of shared sacrifice, to “cut” $14.6 million by not spending money on a visitors center that had already been built.

These aren’t “smart” cuts, they are smart-ass ones.

Going beyond the anecdotal evidence, Post reporter David Fahrenthold analyzed the 16 largest cuts in the 2011 deal, each of which was supposed to trim at least $500 millions from the federal budget. Collectively, the 16 were to account for two-thirds of the total reduction.

In four instances, the agency involved simply stonewalled the Post, making it impossible to tell whether the cuts were real. Under these circumstances, I think we should presume they were not.

In seven of the remaining 12 cases, the Post found that the cuts had minimal or no real-world impact. Instead, they involved the kind of sleight-of-hand described in the examples cited above.

This track record obviously militates in favor of using a sequester, rather than the 2011 approach, this time around. The White House claims that things are different now because the “low-hanging fruit” from 2011 has been cut. But there are always recently expired projects, or non-existent ones, that can be claimed as cuts. Anyone who believes the government has run out of budgetary gimmicks hasn’t been paying attention, and would rather not.

The real question, I think, is not whether alternatives to sequestration can be undermined, but whether sequestration can be as well. The answer is probably “yes,” but not to the degree that past cuts have been.