Policy 101 – Never Propose an Alternative (Sequester) With Which You Can’t Live


I wonder if there is a single American that isn’t frustrated with the President and Congress over the sequester.  We need to reframe our approach to fiscal policy.  Specifically, we should seek just policy over mere charity, compassion and equity over profit and special interest, and human dignity over personal preference and convenience. The Sequester is a failure of Congress and the President to seek just policy, demonstrate compassion and equity, and show a preference for human dignity.  I should add, and to do their jobs.  I can’t help but wonder how it came to be that Congress and the President care more about winning than the country and their neighbors?  How is this leadership?

It is clear that the President proposed the sequester, but it is also clear he did it in order to avoid the debt ceiling crisis.  Likewise, Congress went along with it because they, like the President, believed no one was so self-centered and so lacking in judgment as to let it occur.  That was unwise on all parts.

Having spent many years focused on policy in the government and now teaching health policy to graduate students I have one hard and fast rule.  Rule #1 for policy alternatives, never put an option on the table with which one cannot live. Count on the fact that someone will think it is a good idea; even if it is only to eventually make a rival look bad. The sequester was a bad idea.  It was bad policy.  It has proven that one party will follow the other right over the cliff in order not to “tap out” and I use the term because it is mental image I have in my head of Congress and the President.

It will not be an easy task to get to a reasonable budget and it will require a lot more than political speeches.  A reasonable policy to address our current financial needs should have some key elements:

  1. Assess Needs:  A reasonable assessment of needs should be conducted and not a department wish list.
  2. Respect Spending:  Recognize that a million dollars is a lot of money and stop approaching it as if it is insignificant.  It has caused a mind set that makes cuts harder than they should be by only examining big-ticket items.  It results in many departments ignoring the “small” items.  They do add up and just because they can’t resolve the budget crisis alone does not mean that small wasteful spending should not be stopped.
  3. Stabilize Funding:  Broad policies are needed that address the stabilization of funds, debt limits, and operational mechanisms.  I recognize the government has such mechanisms, but they do not work.  When something isn’t working it is a good idea to take another path or hire people that know how to make it work.  A budget needs to be a multi-year appropriation.  It takes significant time and effort for every department to prepare a budget that then it is rarely passed in a timely fashion if at all.  For example, the President proposes a budget in his or her first year for 4 years.  If Congress does not pass a budget by the end of the first year the President’s budget is automatically accepted and will run through the first year of the next President’s term.  It would require clear priorities and nothing could be added without an emergency appropriation.   It would also mean that the budget would be a significant issue that would require some specificity in Presidential campaigns rather than vague sound bites.  Finally, any funding not used by the end of the fiscal would role over into the next year (or 75% would role over and 25% back to treasury).  This may stop or reduce the absolutely crazy end of year spending many agencies do so that it doesn’t appear the money appropriated wasn’t needed.  This would necessarily require a change in current laws.
  4. Evaluate Performance and Make Necessary Changes:  A mechanism to measure success, reward it, and eliminate what is shown to be ineffective is needed.  Keeping programs because they are pet projects, or have big lobbies, or even because it is a good photo op has to end.  All like programs should be combined.  There are many programs that exist for which there are virtually identically programs in other departments.  People in government are often unaware that another department is doing virtually the same work.  Least anyone wonder why this happens it is usually because Congress does it without recognizing what they are doing.
  5. Revise the Tax Code:  A fair and equitable tax code that is significantly simplified must be created.  This would require completely eliminating the current tax code, which is far too complex (we have more taxes and fees attached to specific items than you can imagine – imports, gas, alcohol, tobacco, etc).  There must be equality for the poor, the middle class, the rich the ridiculously rich, and businesses.  If corporations are people they should be treated and taxed like people.  Likewise, unearned income should not be taxed at a lower rate than earned income nor should inheritance be excluded.  I didn’t earn my parents money, they did.  When it comes to me it is unearned and to me it is income and should be taxed.  I should be able to tell you how much I paid in taxes, but I can only tell you my income tax.  I doubt the government even knows how many ways we are taxed.
  6. Apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:  A consistent mechanism to assess whether the budget ensures the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are meet should be implemented – after those needs are meet what is done is what the people are willing to pay for in taxes without incurring greater debt.
  7. Enhance Education:  A priority to ensure the most highly educated workforce in the world should be an automatic priority – good things will follow.  Maybe we can even acknowledge that testing doesn’t make us smarter, but it cost a lot of money.
  8. Public Input – Implement a mechanism to gather public input on budget priorities.  The people pay the taxes and there should be a mechanism for input.  At one time that was by our vote for our representatives at all levels.  This now only allows input of Republicans to Republicans and Democrats to Democrats, neither of which appear to listen.  A letter gets a form letter reply most likely from a twenty something staffer.  That is not input.  The electronic capabilities exist to post budgets, link supporting documents, and provide a period of feedback from the people that pay the taxes.  Ultimately, Congress passes the budget, but it will no longer be able to hide large pet projects.  All budgets should be publically available at all phases of the process, including drafts.
  9. Department Reviews:  Not all departments or agencies are currently relevant.  Let me give you a few expensive examples.  Do we need separate medical components for the Army, Navy, Air Force, U.S. Public Health Service, and Veterans Affairs?  Could we not have one component that serves them all and save all the administrative duplication?  Do we need the Department of Education?  Has our educational system improved as the department has grown or have we fallen further behind?  How many times has it been recommended that the SSBG be eliminated only to have Congress not eliminate it, but add even more money to it?  Does anyone really believe that the retirement age should not be 68 or 70?  Remember, what the life expectancy was when Medicare and Social Security was first instituted and adjust it accordingly.
  10. Human Dignity:  Each budget item should, at a minimum, not harm human dignity either within or outside the U.S.  The budget tells us much about our morality.  It tells us what we truly value.
Maslow's Hierachy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs

The sequester was a colossal lack of leadership by the President and lack of judgment by Congress.  The first to admit they made a mistake and undo it will earn my respect.  Those who cannot admit their errors do not deserve our respect or our votes.

Exempting the Department of Defense and not programs that feed the poor, house the homeless, and ensure education of the children is not acceptable.  As Congress and the President approaches the budget I hope they can keep in mind the Judgment of Nations.

 The Judgment of the Nations.* 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32and all the nations* will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35h For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous* will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ 40i And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41*  Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44* Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 46And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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