Who is sacrificing for the fiscal cliff?

A false assumption has driven debate over the “fiscal cliff” the federal budget faces due to a process called sequestration.

That assumption is sequestration would be averted because both parties stood to lose big: Republicans hate defense cuts and Democrats hate domestic program cuts.

Yet many Democrats, including our state’s congressional delegation, are ardent foes of defense cuts. They fought for the $35 billion Boeing tanker deal, and have sought to preserve Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Congressman Adam Smith is the ranking Democrat on House Armed Services.

The other reality is not enough Democrats will hold firm for domestic programs at risk. In this partisan game of “chicken,” they’re as prepared as Republicans to see them tumble over the cliff.

So what if $543 million is cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children? The infants can’t vote, and their moms can’t afford political contributions. As for a 2 percent cut to Medicare, it can be rationalized as a cut to providers – not beneficiaries – even if it’s tantamount to the same thing. Education funding could plunge $4 billion – devastating to schools, but budget dust to federal lawmakers.

Even assuming sequestration is avoided, given the undue bi-partisan emphasis on austerity at a time when the economy is still stagnant and could use more federal spending, not less, many domestic programs will still be chopped in any “Grand Bargain” between the White House and Republicans.

Where, after all, is the firewall? Even some Democrats, including one elected to Congress from my district, embrace a 3-1 ratio of cuts to revenue. Yet the very conservative “Simpson-Bowles Plan” was commonly described as having no greater than a 2-1 ratio of cuts to revenue – with many cuts already made.

Not all Democrats are blithe about this. Two senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, have a modest ask in a letter to President Obama: “Members should not be forced to vote up or down on plan that they have not seen and have not been able to study.” In private, concerns are greater – progressives are afraid of being sold out. As a budgetary proportion, discretionary spending is already at its lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration. Decrying cuts that “shift costs to states” they note “Medicare and Medicaid are already very efficient” – with lower growth than private insurance rates.

A group called Fix the Debt has held an October 25 Seattle press conference to tout debt reduction. No grassroots effort, it boasts a “CEO Fiscal Leadership Council” that, laughably, includes villains that brought us the Great Recession – the truest source of our debt crisis – such as the heads of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

Leaked details of the previous deal President Obama was willing to strike with House Speaker John Boehner included huge health care cuts – including military TRICARE and Medicare – as well as billions taken from nutrition assistance and higher education. Not only are these federal cuts senseless, and heartless in some cases, they would shackle our underfunded state budget with more unmet needs.

If sequestration occurs, how can our no-new-taxes state possibly satisfy its unmet K-12 funding obligation if it loses $18.2 million in special education funding alone? Just the $9.7 million cut to Head Start would cost 680 jobs, with almost as many at risk due to the other program cuts.

For one little 44-bed Anacortes nursing home, sequestration’s 2 percent Medicare cut would be a $40,000 annual loss on top of a state Medicaid payment shortfall that was $257,773.56 in 2011. A report projects this 2% cut alone would force our state’s hospitals, nursing homes, health practitioners and others to lay off 10,388 workers in 2013.

The best “bargain” for federal lawmakers is to fix the economy first and debt second. Sacrificing a fragile economy for debt reduction – through bad choices like defunding education and health care – is the tail wagging the dog.

Olympia attorney and former state representative Brendan Williams is a long-term care advocate.

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