Leubsdorf: The sequester is going to happen. What will we do about it?

The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo Credit: AP

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Cuts may be unavoidable, but Washington can figure how out to manage them to be more effective and less harmful.

The $85 billion budget sequester that takes effect Friday is the result of miscalculations by both parties.

After all, it was designed as the backup plan that would never be used.

Republicans figured they would regain the White House in 2012 and be able to dictate the terms of future spending cuts. And President Barack Obama figured the GOP would be so eager to avoid cutting defense spending it would accept additional revenues from closing tax loopholes.

Both calculations have proved incorrect. But as weeks of White House warnings evolve into a reality that may be less bleak, at least initially, the focus will, it is hoped, change from this week's half-hearted effort to avoid the cuts into a more significant one about how to manage them to be more effective and less harmful.

After all, across-the-board cuts of departmental budgets are a simplistic process that are often proposed in congressional budgeting fights but have never made much sense in a world in which the values of federal programs vary greatly.

Reshaping the sequestration cuts ought to form a major subtext of the next big budget battle over funding the federal government for the remainder of the year. It could result in a government shutdown if the two sides don't reach common ground by the end of March.

Indeed, reshaping the reductions looks like the only realistic way that the sequester cuts will be changed, and already there are reports of behind-the-scenes negotiations that follow familiar lines.

According to The Wall Street Journal, GOP congressional leaders are willing to reshape Pentagon reductions to reduce the scheduled cutbacks in military readiness and Democrats want to revise the domestic reductions.

Businessweek laid out a series of alternative Pentagon budget cut targets, citing such overcost weapons systems as the "glitch-ridden" Joint Strike Fighter program and renovation of the outdated M-1 Abrams tank.

Meanwhile, the two parties are expected to continue jockeying over which party deserves the blame - or the credit - for the sequester.

Despite earlier denials, it's clear that with the president's approval, top Obama administration officials proposed a sequester divided equally between domestic and military programs as a means of pressuring Congress to agree to a more reasonable package of spending cuts and tax increases.

The concept was hardly original; it was borrowed from the procedure devised by former Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and the recently deceased Warren Rudman of New Hampshire in the early 1980s to control federal spending. Jacob Lew, who played a key role in last year's talks as the White House chief of staff and is now going to be Treasury Secretary, was involved in those 1980s negotiations as an aide to the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

Nevertheless, the GOP congressional leadership went along with it. When lawmakers voted in 2011 on the complex legislation that included the sequester language, 174 Republicans joined 95 Democrats in voting for it.

That hardly matters now as the White House and lawmakers seek to avoid blame for the proposed cuts, including furloughs of thousands of government workers.

But let's be fair; many private companies have resorted to furloughs to save money in recent years, so why shouldn't the financially strapped federal government?

On the other hand, it's not too much to expect the squabbling members of Congress to take some time out from their blamesmanship and work on re-allocating the cuts so that, for example, the Department of Transportation keeps air traffic controllers on the job and makes the burden of furloughs fall on desk-bound bureaucrats.

And who knows? By next summer, the two parties may be competing to take credit for the cuts, provided they don't cause much damage to the economy.

On the other hand, it's not too much to expect the squabbling members of Congress to take some time out from their blamesmanship and work on re-allocating the cuts so that, for example, the Department of Transportation keeps air traffic controllers on the job and makes the burden of furloughs fall on desk-bound bureaucrats.

And who knows? By next summer, the two parties may be competing to take credit for the cuts, provided they don't cause much damage to the economy.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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