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GRAVES: Congress' use of 'sequestration' not accurate

Joe Graves

A brief quiz for you this morning: If Detroit is the home of American automobile manufacturing, Pittsburgh of American steel, and Las Vegas of American sin, of what is Washington, D.C., the home?

Perhaps there are simply too many correct or humorous answers to narrow it down. I would offer the following answer key, however: Abused vocabulary and neologisms. There are so many examples of such that I don't feel compelled to go into it other than to offer the most recent, "sequestration." This is not a new word, of course, but it is being used in a new, truthfully inaccurate way. One sequesters a jury. One sequesters someone's assets in order to pay off a debt. Just how a mandated cut in projected federal spending can be considered sequestration is puzzling.

Puzzling until you realize that using an inappropriate word is precisely the point. Since one side of the aisle is allergic to the phrase "tax increase" and the other to the phrase "spending cut," Congress and the administration had to come up with some new word, a word which would obfuscate the true meaning of just what is going on. (To do so, I imagine they turned to the "assistant undersecretary for neology and public befuddlement" in some cabinet department to come up with this wonderful word. But I digress.)

While the maltreatment of the English language is bad enough, it isn't even close to the most disappointing aspect of federal sequestration. There are many such aspects in fact. That cuts, for example, to educational programming will occur at all are disappointing to many. That they are coming at a time when an at least tepid and perhaps fragile economic recovery is under way is concerning. That a cleaner sweep of all federal education spending is not being discussed, given the lack of a federal constitutional role in this area, is discouraging to the purists.

And these are all causes for concern. But perhaps the most damning of all in the sequestration event -- which will supposedly cut all budget categories by the same percentage -- is that is misses a golden opportunity. While it may seem platitudinous to say, I have nevertheless found it to be true that all challenges are also opportunities. If the federal government needs to make spending cuts (leaving aside the other possibility of tax hikes for the moment), then it has a wonderful opportunity masquerading as a painful challenge before it. That opportunity is the same as has presented itself to school districts all across South Dakota, and pretty much the entire country, over the last decade, the opportunity to evaluate programs, set priorities and get lean.

In the public sector, the profit motive does not drive people to constantly increase productivity, to eliminate unsuccessful programs, to increase investment in successful programs, and to cull the obsolete. (The other thing I leave aside for the moment is that many feel the cuts have gone beyond what can be productively eliminated during the last decade as that is an argument for another day.)

Such motivation comes in the public sector, unless leadership is consistently manufacturing it, only when facing the challenge of spending cuts. Here and now the federal government is facing the need to cut spending yet it is so incapable of facing the objective realities of its myriad programming and those programs' successes and failures that it squanders the opportunity in favor of across-the-board cuts, slicing away at the productive and the unproductive alike, leaving the former less capable of doing what is being done well and the latter scapegoating cuts for its persistent failures.

Sadder still is the fact that the feds already know what they are doing well and what they are not because internal and external data as well as internal and external research is constantly being conducted on federal programming. All of which is essentially ignored even during a period of cuts (or even just slowed increases).

Imagine facing the challenge of appendicitis and your surgeon offering such a cure. "Well, what you need is your appendix removed but we'll be using an across-the-board approach so we'll remove 2 percent of all of your organs."

OK, I know that medical analogies cannot be reasonably applied to political realities. What I also know is that the inability of our federal representatives on both sides of the aisle and in all three branches to see any reality at this point is frittering away a golden opportunity to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government while it works to restore fiscal responsibility.

What this makes Washington the home of remains best unsaid in a family newspaper.