Thanks to the sequester, there will be less of this happening.
Since it went into effect on March 1, pundits, journalists, and policymakers have decried the sequester—the process by which $85 billion will be cut from the US federal government’s budget—as the ultimate symbol of Washington, DC, dysfunction. This was "never supposed to happen," they cry, exasperated, pining for Congress and President Obama to put aside their differences and "get the job done" in the spirit of bipartisan compromise. These elites are not entirely wrong to marvel at the sheer stupidity of a law that requires, for instance, the National Park Service to delay plowing snow at Yellowstone in the name of upholding fiscal discipline. And it’s true that many ordinary working folk will suffer needlessly as a result of furloughs and pay cuts.
But whatever its many downsides, there are a few notable benefits of the sequester that have been largely unremarked upon by the media. One was unwittingly highlighted by US Attorney General Eric Holder a few days before the cuts began, when he warned, “There are not going to be as many FBI agents, ATF agents, DEA agents, prosecutors who are going to be able to do their jobs.”
First, consider that two weeks have come and gone, and Congress has yet to take any meaningful action to avert the cuts—even though the lead law-enforcement official in the United States is “sounding the alarm” and declaring that “the safety of this country” has been seriously compromised. Such appeals to base emotionalism have apparently lost much of their political potency.
Jon Adler, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, similarly argued that the prime beneficiaries of the sequester will be “suspected terrorists, drug-trafficking cartel members, and sex predator fugitives” who will suddenly find themselves able to evade capture, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has repeatedly proclaimed that the sequester would have a “devastating” impact on that department, and by extension our men and women in uniform. But amazingly, none of this overblown rhetoric worked, and, in fact, the consensus among Congressional Republicans—long the primary boosters of mindless machismo and land-and-order American politics—is that by allowing the sequester to kick in, they scored a political victory.
Then there is the substance of Holder’s claim: that the specter of fewer law-enforcement personnel on the job is self-evidently a reason to fret. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that federal prosecutors will indeed handle 2,600 fewer cases in the fiscal year 2013, as one government projection maintains. Far from being endangered, Americans may well find their safety enhanced as a result of this particular cut, as prosecutors must be more selective in whom they target. Maybe in this brave new sequestered world, Justice Department resources will be expended on fewer costly, dangerous follies like the hypervindictive campaign against internet pioneer/genius Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January facing 35 years in prison for the crime of downloading a lot of documents from JSTOR. (Holder has since defended the Swartz crusade as “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.”) Imposing some frugality on prosecutors could be a blessing in disguise.
In an editorial published just before the sequester went into effect, the New York Times identified the Coast Guard’s diminished capacity to carry out drug-interdiction missions as one of the budget cuts' many supposedly grim consequences. But again, this seems an outcome that’s worth cheering: federal drug prohibition is an obvious, unmitigated disaster, a fact which many national politicians must fully recognize by now but are unwilling to do anything about. So if it takes some unprecedented Washington gridlock and confusion to make a dent in curtailing the massive prohibitionist regime—eh, we should take what we can get. The same logic applies to the cuts affecting the DEA, which will lose $166 million under sequestration. That’s $166 million less with which to raid medical-marijuana dispensaries, spread propaganda, and otherwise enforce drug prohibition. Baby steps.
As for the FBI, that agency might consider making due by ratcheting down on its vast domestic surveillance initiatives and absurd sting operations. (The FBI director warned, hilariously, that the sequester cuts will hinder their investigations of Wall Street, which barely exist.)
It used to be that talk of austerity was largely confined to social insurance programs—Medicare, public-employee benefits, and all the other programs the left has traditionally embraced. Now, thanks to a classic case of farcical Washington inaction, some other, nastier functions of government will take a serious hit. President Obama has likened the sequester to applying a “meat-cleaver approach” to the country’s finances. But some government agencies could use a circular saw.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.