CONGRESS RETURNS from its Presidents Day vacation on Monday, with plans to take off next Friday. That gives lawmakers four days to solve the problem of the $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts that they plan to inflict on the country. It is the first installment on what is to be a 10-year series of automatic, annual, across-the board cuts totaling more than $1.2 trillion.
Government agencies tend to predict dire consequences at any threats to their funding: diminished services, furloughed workers, mothballed programs and a steep decline in military readiness. This time, the agencies are undoubtedly right. And economists say that if the cuts drag on long enough, they'll kill the economic recovery and perhaps push the country back into recession.
Perhaps because lawmakers haven't been around Washington much this year, they are showing little urgency about heading off this eminently foreseeable disaster, now known universally as the "sequester."
The sequester originally was set to take effect Jan. 1. Congress could do what it did at the end of December and just postpone the reckoning for another month or two. But that will make the impact of the $85 billion reduction even more ruinous because it will be concentrated in eight or nine months instead of spread over 12. And it does nothing about solving the dilemma of a federal budget that is seriously out of control.
As it happens, a potential solution has emerged, or re-emerged: an updated version of the Simpson-Bowles plan. President Barack Obama had appointed former Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles in early 2010 to head a commission to produce a deficit reduction plan.
And they did. Late that year, they proposed a balanced package of entitlement reforms, targeted spending cuts and new revenues created by closing tax loopholes.
Obama ignored their recommendations, though they weren't terribly far from the "grand bargain" that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner reached last year -- only to have it repudiated by House Republicans from the tea party movement. The House also repudiated Simpson-Bowles, 382-38, a vote that was meant as a slap at Obama and a warning to Boehner.
But virtually everyone who has studied the budget problem believes the solution will be a program very much, if not exactly, like Simpson-Bowles. The plan is, as they say, shovel ready and could quickly be enacted.
Bowles, not given to overstatement, calls the sequester "stupid, stupid, stupid." But absent congressional action, it goes into effect March 1 -- a day that, fittingly enough, Congress has decided to take off.