Recent clashes over balancing the federal budget bear an eerie resemblance to the cries of crisis that defined debates over health care reform debates for more than four decades. Over the past month, President Obama warned that sequestration–across the board budget cuts–would “put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk.” Crisis rhetoric has a seductive appeal to political leaders, for it promises to spur action to deal with an acute problem. The Obama administration regarded warnings of a impending catastrophe as a way to break partisan gridlock in Washington, but such crisis talk suffers from a major credibility gap. Cutting federal spending (excluding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, along with military salaries) by 2% is not likely to bring the federal government to a grinding halt. Difficult choices will have to be made, but the president’s warning that these reductions will cripple the American economy simply don’t hold up.
Constructing crises is now the new normal in Washington. To date, neither the “fiscal cliff” nor the threat of sequestration has yielded a meaningful compromise to address the nation’s long term fiscal problems. Instead, balancing the budget, like treating the chronic problems facing the American health care system, is a chronic problem which requires careful management, not brinkmanship. In the case of sequestration, crisis talk is counterproductive and lacks credibility. A new rhetoric of reform is desperately needed to lay the groundwork for a meaningful bipartisan agreement to tackle the nation’s chronic deficit problem.