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Michael Gerson: Washington's serial abdication

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: February 20, 2013

Absurd way to run a government

So Washington has maneuvered itself into a position where doing nothing makes political sense for everyone, at least for the moment. But when all these politically rational decisions are added up, they still amount to an absurd, discrediting way to run a government.

Across-the-board cuts are an ethical abdication. Consider one of many possible case studies: The AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which provides domestic, need-based treatment. Funding for this program is devoted entirely to purchasing drugs, since benefits are provided through Medicaid and involve almost no administrative cost. But because ADAP is not technically a poverty program, it will be subject to the sequester. Nearly 10,000 Americans will lose access to drugs that would otherwise have been provided. Few individual politicians would choose this program for cuts. But by surrendering their power of choice, they have chosen it anyway.

The sequester also manages to be an economic distraction. Once again, it fails to address the ballooning costs of entitlement programs while making all other categories of spending pay the price. While imposing a 5.1 percent cut in domestic discretionary programs and a 7.3 percent cut in defense discretionary programs, the sequester involves a 2 percent reduction in Medicare provider payments. Yet health entitlements — Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare — will account for all of the projected explosion in federal spending in coming decades (since all other spending combined is projected to decline as a share of the economy). The sequester obscures and avoids the true sources of long-term debt.

The American political system is not designed for efficiency. But it presupposes deliberation and leadership. The serial abdication of both eventually has an economic and human cost.