The Capitol Dome in Washington, DC.

The Capitol Dome in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images, 2008

The federal spending cuts that began today, and the pain they may cause, are the focus of furious finger-pointing in Washington. But the real problem the indiscriminate cuts signal is that after years of vicious debate and a national election, President Barack Obama and Congress still haven't produced a coherent plan for rational deficit reduction and economic growth.

Even worse is that the nation has no reason to believe they will.

The sequester's across-the-board cuts in domestic and military spending are the most cowardly approach Congress and Obama could have settled on to shave deficits. It was supposed to cure Washington's dysfunction by being so noxious that Congress would be forced to agree to some more rational alternative. It didn't work.

So Obama is warning that jobs will be lost, national security will suffer, air travel will be snarled due to fewer air traffic controllers, food safety will be threatened because of fewer inspectors and more. The cuts will hurt as they slowly trickle down to individuals and communities. But slicing $85 billion out of a $3.7-trillion budget isn't that draconian.

If Congress would just agree on an approach to stabilize federal finances, the nation's focus could finally shift to critical work such as rebuilding ports and bridges, modernizing power grids, educating Americans for the jobs of tomorrow, and driving research to fuel innovation. That's what will create the conditions for the United States to prosper in the competitive global economy of the future.

Washington's failure -- punctuated by one ginned-up crisis after the other -- has made people nervous about the future, as it should. Washington needs to decide what taxes we'll all pay and what benefits we can count on down the road from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These programs are critical to the well-being of millons of people, but without some changes their costs may be more than we can afford. At this point, almost any plan that secures those programs and settles the question of how much government we want to pay for would be better than this dysfunction. As economic and social conditions change, any plan could be tweaked to match. Right now the nation is barreling down the road to the future with no navigation system.

The real tragedy is that these scattershot cuts aren't part of any plan for a sound future.

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